Friday, March 03, 2000

Talk tough on all sides of levy issue

$100 million for city schools hinges on vote

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Just four days from a vote on two Cincinnati Public Schools levies, supporters and opponents are turning up the heat.

        Radio listeners and television viewers are being bombarded with campaign ads. Yard signs are popping up across the city.

        And on Thursday, Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken blasted opponents of the levies, saying they are bent on hurting Cincinnati's youth.

        “When it comes to kids in the inner city, they are an easy target,” he said. “And that's a shame.”

        The Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes has aggressively fought recent CPS tax levies. It has not opposed those in suburban districts.

        There are reasons for that, said Chris Finney, a COAST leader. CPS is the region's larg est school district, and it is the “most dismal failure.”

        What is at stake on Tuesday are two levies that total about $100 million annually for the district. The district's operating budget is about $360 million.

        The levies will be used to decrease class size, fix facilities, expand reading and math programs, and fund other operating expenses.

        In a campaign that promises “Better Schools for a Better Future,” district officials say passing the levies is crucial to continuing progress the 45,600-student district has made in recent years.

        In November, the district lost a 4.5-mill levy issue. Those who helped defeat the levy said voters were not convinced they were getting their money's worth.

        School backers said the November defeat left the district strapped for money to reform academic programs. About $20 million in budget cuts were started. Supporters were dejected. And many parents and teachers were frustrated.

        “The voters were telling us they did not like the status quo,” said school board member Sally Warner. The November issue was so stripped down that it did not offer the reform many wanted, she added.

        This time, the price is higher.

        On Tuesday, the district is asking voters to approve a 6.5-mill additional operating levy. On the same ballot, there will be a 10.9-mill renewal levy that combines two existing levies.

        “This school district has demonstrated it is on the right track,” the mayor said. Scores on state standardized tests are improving. Discipline problems are decreasing.

        This is not the time to back away from that effort, Ms. Warner said.

        Yet the leaders of COAST, which spent $20,000 to defeat the November levy, said the district has not learned its lesson “They say they still need money. But it's never enough,” Mr. Finney said.

        While the debate over the levies is played out in advertisements and public speeches, its focus is on classrooms. Teachers would get more time with their students. The rooms themselves would get needed upkeep.

        Most elementary classes in the district have 28 to 30 students, according to the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers. If both levies pass, that would drop to 15-18 students in grades kindergarten through 3.

        “These are the very important years in a child's development,” said Pat Stewart-Adams, principal of Heberle Elementary in the West End. “If they don't learn the basics by that level, it's increasingly hard to play catch-up.”

        The needs of the district are visible. At Heberle, there are classrooms with nearly a dozen more students than what educators recommend. And the state has declared CPS in academic emergency because most standardized tests scores are too low.

        To change that, the process must start at the youngest levels, Ms. Stewart-Adams said. Problems are more easily discovered and addressed in smaller classes. The fewer students a teacher has, the more time that is spent with each one.

        The district also wants to improve reading and math programs in primary grades and cover inflation. Establishing a strong foundation early in reading and math skills allows students to succeed in higher grades and cut dropout rates, she said.

        The the past few weeks, teachers and other school employees have donated about $15,000 to their union's campaign to pass the levies.

        People want reform. These levies offer it, said Tom Mooney, president of the teachers' union.

        “Never has the school district presented a levy that is so compelling,” he said.


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