Friday, November 05, 1999

New school board members stress reforms, funding

Three also plan more public input for Cincinnati education

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The three candidates elected to the Cincinnati Board of Education on Tuesday say they will focus the district more on state funding equity, better engage the public and step up the urgency of school reform.

        They say their election — along with the defeat of a $24 million levy Cincinnati Public Schools sought — proves voters aren't satisfied with the city's public schools and want change.

        Former Ohio Gov. John Gilligan and University of Cincinnati professor Florence Newell easily snagged seats despite being snubbed by the corporate community, whose support historically has catapulted candidates into office. Businesses were the biggest backers of candidates Rick Williams, who was elected, and Louis Buschle, who wasn't.

        Ms. Newell was outspent by about 10-to-1 by three of her competitors, and neither she nor Mr. Williams had run for public office before.

        “It shows that the public is interested in the schools, but they're not exactly sure they like the direction in which the school board is currently going,” said Stan Corkin, a Clifton father of two and co-chairman of Cincinnatians for Public Education (CPE). CPE formed last spring to encourage a more open process of nominating school board candidates; the group endorsed Mr. Gilligan, Ms. Newell and incumbent Arthur Hull, who lost.

        The new faces promise to change the chemistry of the board, which typically shows a united front and supports reforms touted by Superintendent Steven Adamowski.

        The first, most visible change may involve community engagement.

        All three new board members complain that the current board and administrators too often leave the public out of discussions on district problems and reforms.

        One example is the board's decision last summer to lower athletic eligibility requirements — board members passed it, despite never having discussed it at a full board meeting. They hastily reversed it in response to community outcry.

        Such decisions create distrust, the new board members said.

        Mr. Williams, appointed to the school board in May after longtime member Virginia Griffin resigned, al ready has created a committee to explore ways to better involve the public in school board business.

        “The public will start to see different types of meetings with the community, and they'll see their influence on our decision-making,” Mr. Williams said. “We're not just going to sit and speak at the public anymore; that way of doing business is officially over.”

        Ms. Newell, who marched in nine parades and attended “more than I can count” community meetings as part of her grass-roots campaign, hopes to have regular community forums where residents get more than three minutes at a lectern to voice concerns.

        All school board discussions must occur in public, Mr. Gilligan said.

        Mr. Gilligan also plans to take a more active role in pushing for adequate state funding. The school district levy's defeat — and the budget cuts of up to $20 million Mr. Adamowski said the district must now make — proves the state urgently needs to create a new funding formula less reliant on local taxpayers, he said.

        Mr. Gilligan played down his political influence, saying he's a Democrat in a Republican state. But his status as a former governor and congressman lends him a stature absent on the current board, Mr. Corkin said.

        All three new board members also hope to step up the pace of reforms, which they acknowledge could be a tough task in the face of budget cuts.

        The district's relationship with the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers also could change under the new board.

        The relationship has grown increasingly tense during the past year, as administrators cut teacher training and incentive programs. Mr. Adam- owski also has made it clear he sees union regulations as an obstacle to schools' autonomy and success. Yet the union has helped develop many reforms planned or implemented at CPS.

        With contract negotiations set to start soon, board members could find talks tough, especially when faced with budget cuts.

        Ms. Newell, who helped craft UC's teacher-training program, and Mr. Gilligan were endorsed by the CFT. Both say they are not afraid to stand up against the union and Mr. Adam- owski for students' sake.

        “The board is intended to be, and must be primarily, concerned with the well-being of children, and if that means stamping on some administrative toes or some union toes, so be it,” Mr. Gilligan said.


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