Sunday, April 16, 2000

Springboro school board under fire by parents

Superintendent's departure led to protests, questions

BY Phillip Pina
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        SPRINGBORO — At first glance, this Warren County city appears to be the picture of prosperous and tranquil suburbia, growing rapidly with upscale subdivisions but with a quaint “Old Springboro” downtown area. Yet it is a community seething with turmoil over its children's schools.

[photo] Ed Perkins speaks to the public last week while Cindy Garland watches.
(Craig Ruttle photo)
| ZOOM |
        Parents mass by the hundreds inside for raucous school board meetings and outside for sign-waving protests that began heating up after the board last month bought out the contract of the popular superintendent. Since then, three other key administrators have announced plans to leave — including, on Wednesday, the high school's principal.

        There is much to be done as the schools cope with exploding growth. But first the board must survive an effort to oust it.

        Disgruntled parents have collected about 2,000 signatures on petitions asking for school board members to quit. Newspaper ads have been taken out demanding the same. Thousands of letters have been mailed to rouse public interest.

        “Until this board resigns, heaven help us,” said Noel Thompson, the father of two students at Springboro.

        Springboro is a small city that has seen growth jump nearly 60 percent since 1990 to an estimated 10,500 residents. And as in most growing communities, school leaders have been battling over issues of taxes, space and overall policy.

        But what is happening in Springboro is by no means typical, said William Drury, assistant dean of the school of education at the University of Dayton. A school board consultant as well as the former president of the Buckeye Association of School Administrators, he has been keeping an eye on the situation.

        “It's the local soap opera,” Mr. Drury said.

        In the mid-1990s, the political minority on the Springboro school board — Cindy Garland and Gary Ihle — clashed repeatedly with administrators and lost many votes by a 3-2 count. After a short stint outside politics, Ms. Garland was elected last fall.

        This time, she leads the board majority, but against a tide of community unrest.

        As many as 500 residents have shown up at recent board meetings.

        “Certainly it's the talk of the town,” said Ed Perkins, who has been serving as interim superintendent since Gary Meier's resignation.

        Questions in phone calls to board members and during public meetings include: Why did they let Mr. Meier go? If they questioned his work, why buy out his contract for $280,000? What are they doing to keep key personnel?

        Lately, Ms. Garland and Mr. Ihle have kept low profiles.

        Ms. Garland has refused to comment on the recent resignations and public uproar. One question from the Enquirer she did answer: Will she resign?

        “There's no chance of that.”

        In earlier comments, Mr. Ihle has said board members were concerned about the district's operations. It took four tries to pass a school levy in November that allowed Springboro to open a school that had sat vacant two years despite $4.1 million in renovations.

        And he said the working relationship with school administrators had become difficult, that communications had broken down.

        High School Principal Jack Poore said last week he intends to accept a post as principal at the Miami Valley Career Technical Center near Dayton.

        “There is an uncertain feeling about the direction of the district,” said Mr. Poore, who is leaving Springboro after three years. He said he's leaving because of an opportunity, but agrees that staff are uneasy about the administrative turnover and the actions of the school board.

        He added that Springboro has been a good district with a lot of good people supporting it.

        Springboro passed 22 of 27 state testing standards and has been labeled as showing continuous improvement, and its student performance scores last year were above state averages. It spends about $5,281 per pupil, compared with an Ohio average of $6,642.

        “We just have a lot of work to do,” said Diane Trifiro, a board member now part of the voting minority. She is concerned about the reaction to recent board decisions, and has been hearing it from the public.

        They call her at home. They stop her in the streets. They pull her aside at meetings.

        “They all want to know what is going on. And when is it going to end?” she said.

        The public outcry will end when people become so disgusted they stop participating, or when both sides make efforts to reach a common ground, Mr. Drury said. In 1995, the school board sought the advice of the Ohio School Boards Association to help members improve relationships. Mr. Drury suggests they do that again.

        “Nobody wins in these situations,” Mr. Drury said. Both sides will have to compromise, he said. Parents are not likely to see the board resign and the board will have to consider parent wishes while making decisions.

        Parents such as Christine Iaconis say the battle is too important to ease up now. A mass mailing is planned over the next few days decrying the school board's actions and urging residents to get involved.

        The mother of an elementary school student, she has been an active backer of the district, working on campaigns to pass tax levies. Yet her opinion of the board's actions have pitted her and other parents against the leaders of the school they have long supported.

        “All we want are some straight answers,” Ms. Iaconis said. “And the best education for our kids.”


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