Wednesday, January 16, 2002

CPS board president sees city stake in rebuilding plan

By Jennifer Mrozowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        When Rick Williams first considered running for the Cincinnati Board of Education in 1999, his parents, who had been administrators in the district, tried to talk him out of it.

        He didn't listen.

    Name: Rick Williams
    Position: President, Cincinnati Board of Education
    Residence: North Avondale
    Age: 47
    Occupation: President and chief executive officer of the Home Ownership Center of Greater Cincinnati
    Elected: Mr. Williams was first appointed in May 1999 and was elected in November 1999; he's serving his third year as president
    Education: Woodward High School graduate; bachelor's of fine arts in architecture from the Rhode Island School of Design; master's degree in community planning from the University of Cincinnati.
        On Monday, the 47-year-old North Avondale resident was elected board president for the third straight year. Although he's about to face the biggest challenge the board has tackled in decades — securing money to rebuild schools over the next decade — he's glad he didn't listen.

        In an interview Tuesday at the Avondale office of the Home Ownership Center of Greater Cincinnati, where he serves as president and chief executive officer, Mr. Williams spoke about past accomplishments, as well as the struggles and opportunities ahead for the 42,000-student district.

        Q: You've been named board president for the third time just a week after the district unveiled a $1 billion facilities plan to renovate 32 schools, build 34 more and close 20-some others. How can you help gain the support of the public and the board for this plan?

        A: This plan already has support of the board. As far as the community support, we had to be doing that before now ... and we have to do that day to day. This is also a great opportunity for integration between City Council and the board of education. I think we finally now have an agenda, a project. It is a 10-year major economic project for the city of Cincinnati. If that does not bring us together working on something, nothing will.

        Q: The majority of the district's schools have drafty windows, outdated electrical systems and poor ventilation. How did the schools get in such terrible condition?

        A: School buildings in Ohio are rated the worst in the entire country. I can't answer that question without attaching it to how Ohio funds its schools. There's very little help from the state level. (The state in 1997 began offering more help to districts to build schools, and will pay about $200 million toward CPS' building project.) We also have among the oldest structures in the state. Previous boards have had to make the decision between keeping the doors open and major capital improvements. The choice was made to keep the doors open (and secure local funding for school operations).

        Q: The district has made some strides in academic achievement and is among the first of Ohio's big urban districts to drop the state label “academic emergency” but CPS students' proficiency test scores are still among the worst in the state. What needs to be done and what's in the works?

        A: It is important that we continue to do what we know is working. A lot of that is a continuation of what we're doing. And certain things we are doing now, the public has heard about, but the effects of them are not yet being seen on the state report card (which measures students' performance on state tests, attendance and graduation rates). They are things like redesigning high schools, the teacher evaluation system and teacher recruitment.

        Q: Some say residents should stop throwing tax dollars into bad public schools and parents should instead receive vouchers to send their children to private schools. Why should taxpayers continue to pay for public schools when test scores are still poor and the graduation rate is still dismal?

        A: I am not going to suggest we are the quintessential example of perfect public education. We also don't believe taxpayers should invest dollars in poor public schools. But it's a misconception that CPS is a district of poor schools. That's why we are implementing these reforms. That's why we are redesigning. Vouchers are not a systemic answer to public education because public education is about educating all the public with all its needs.

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