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News: Year of Decision Ahead

The future looks rough for Cincinnati Public Schools

By Margo Pierce · December 19th, 2007 · News

Three new members are starting and three old members are leaving, a $66 million deficit looms and the head staffer is leaving in June. What´s a board of education to do?

Work hard -- that´s what Eileen Cooper-Reed, president of the Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) Board of Education, says is the essential response to the ¨no confidence¨ message voters Cincinnati sent last month when they made sweeping changes to the board and refused an emergency tax levy request.

¨The credibility of the board and the district in the community has some significant challenges,¨ Cooper-Reed says. ¨One of the most important ones is better communication with the public and a systematic way to engage this community in a way that we´ve never done before. It´s not just the parents; it means the entire community -- those who are leery about us and absolutely support us.¨

Board member-elect Michael Flannery hopes to be part of making that new kind of open communication a reality.

¨It´s easier if it´s open, transparent communication with constituents and the press,¨ he says. ¨If they know everything, then nothing gets hidden. If your hands are up on the table, face up -- here´s what we´re doing. I think everybody´s willing but I´ll be real disappointed if that openness is not there. People will tell you real soon if they like or don´t like it. That´s fine, because I´m working for the people.¨

Ask now or later?
People need to know how the schools are doing and what elected officials and administrators are doing to make sure CPS is academically and fiscally strong, according to Cooper-Reed. The deadline -- Dec. 20 -- for making a decision to put another levy before voters this spring is rapidly approaching. The board has to decide if that´s enough time to begin educating voters or if it should wait until later in the year.

Two levy proposals are before the board: a 3.0-mill levy for permanent improvements -- computers, repairs, anything but personnel; and a 6.75-mill levy. Cooper-Reed says she is looking at the pros and cons of each. She says cuts will have to be made to existing programs, staff, administration and/or other budget items in order to address the impending shortfall.

¨I don´t know if all of those issues can be addressed in a few seeks,¨ Cooper-Reed says. ¨Essentially that´s what we´ll have if we do a March levy.¨

Waiting might be best, she says.

¨The implications are that there will be a number of people who are dedicated to CPS who will not be happy,¨ Cooper-Reed says. ¨But it also means that it will give us a chance to do a number of important things.¨

Her view of the top priorities includes conducting board business in an open manner; showing the community that the new treasurer is happy to open the books to show how fiscally responsible the district has been, despite charges to the contrary; doing a curriculum and strategic plan review to provide data that shows how curriculum, finances and school construction are bringing about student success; and communicating all of this to anyone willing to listen.

¨Three Teach for America fellows are right now doing research to recommend policies, mechanics and structures for community engagement and hopefully a vastly different way,¨ Cooper-Reed says. ¨We´re asking the Council for Great City Schools to come in so that they can look at the programmatic aspect of CPS.¨

How have the administrative changes made by Superintendent Rosa Blackwell helped support or detract from the changes proposed by the same group in 2005? Blackwell only made limited use of the recommendations, so it´s going to be difficult to identify what changes have resulted in positive or negative outcomes, but general numbers such as graduation rates have shown steady improvement.

Even with positive data to share, the school board´s and the district´s ability to connect with voters has been largely unsuccessful, even in a year full of success stories. News reports about increasing graduation rates, award winning teachers and the latest state report card didn´t help get the last tax levy passed. U.S. News and World Report recently ranked Walnut Hills High School as a Gold Medal winner, 83rd in the top 100 schools in the country; and Clark Montessori and Withrow University high schools made the top 1,500. But that only addresses one of CPS´s many perceived problems.

Watershed year
How can the board of education and CPS administrators restore public confidence?

¨We have almost half of a new board,¨ Cooper-Reed says. ¨Unfortunately, they inherit the credibility of the board. The resources are available to us; it just depends on whether the new board can coalesce in a way that allows us to move forward on all these fronts.¨

In addition to preparing an orientation for new board members -- never done in the past, according to Flannery -- the new members are being copied on all communications and invited to attend all board meetings, including executive sessions. The effort to integrate the newbies appears sincere, but the reputation of being the enemy isn´t as easy to address.

¨When I was running, friends of mine were saying, ¨What are you doing? You spent 20 years being the nice guy -- kids´ show host, advocate for kids with special needs. Now you´re going to become the jerk everybody hates,´ ¨ Flannery says. ¨If it´s working well, you´re invisible; and if it´s not, then you´re the guy who´s messing it up. That´s just part of the job. I´ve already gotten e-mails from people yelling at me, and I haven´t even been sworn in yet.

¨I send ´em an e-mail back saying, ¨You´re mad at me for something that I haven´t done ¸. something that someone else said. Here´s my cell phone, call me.´ ¨

The combination of new and seasoned board members might be what it takes to make 2008 a year of change.

¨I feel we´re at a watershed point in term of the viability of CPS and its children,¨ Cooper-Reed says. ¨That´s something that´s very sobering.¨

One of the first tests will be the search for a new superintendent. Cooper-Reed says the community will be invited to participate in the process once it´s defined after the first of the year.



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