by Chuck Hoven
(Plain Press, February 2013) Citizens trying to get a fair hearing for their concerns at the Cleveland Board of Education, often leave the Board of Education meeting wondering if the board members were even paying attention. The Cleveland Board of Education meetings are an exercise in frustration for citizens.
The Cleveland Municipal School District Board of Education Business Meeting on December 11th at James Ford Rhodes High School at 5100 Biddulph provides an example. During the public participation period, members of the public are allowed to speak to the Board of Education for three minutes. Board members sit silently. While CEO Eric Gordon, occasionally makes a comment, or responds to an inquiry, members of the Board of Education remain silent. There is no attempt to follow up on concerns of residents, refer them to appropriate staff for help, or to even acknowledge that their concerns have been heard.
In a school district that claims it wants to listen to residents concerns and incorporate them into its planning process, to have the chief policy-making body so inaccessible is inexcusable. At the Board of Education meeting, former school board member Gerald Henley pointed out that the school board hadn’t held a committee meeting in 14 years. Without committee meetings, residents are left with no opportunity to dialogue with the Board of Education on topics of importance to them. There is no venue to directly discuss with the chief policy makers of the district, ideas and issues that residents would like to see addressed.
Overcrowding of classrooms was one of the critical issues raised at the Board of Education meeting. A community member said she came to the Board of Education meeting because she promised a 7th Grade student that she would bring her concerns before the Board of Education. The community member said the young girl told her that 53 students, boys and girls age 12 and 13, come to her classroom every day. The classroom is loud, noisy, crowded and the disrespect given to the teacher is unbearable to her. The community member asked the board and the CEO what their strategy was for dealing with overcrowded classrooms. There was no response.
Another citizen concerned about the large class sizes told board members, “When you put 52 children in a room where the sign outside the door says maximum capacity 42, all I have to do to shut you down is to call the Fire Marshall. It is unsafe to have 52 children in a room…”
A member of a parent group that has looked carefully at the Transformation Plan, asked the Board and the CEO about a clause on page two in the plan that calls for the elimination of 63 failing schools. She asked what would happen to these school buildings, would they be turned over to charter schools? CEO Eric Gordon said closing schools was not part of the strategy, and he would do a word search to check on what is in the plan.
An uncle of several children in the school district asked why administrators were being paid $190,000 a year when there were 65 students in a classroom. He also took issue with the district’s transpiration policy, saying he was providing his niece and nephew each with $85 every month so they could buy a bus pass to get to school.
Satinder P. S. Puri announced to the Board of Education that he had ended his three-week hunger strike — an effort to draw attention to the lack of due process in the school district’s decision to demolish the historic John Marshall High School Facility. Despite the gathering of over 2,400 signatures from people interested in saving the building, and being without food for three weeks, P.S. Puri was unable to garner a meeting with school board members. There is simply no structure for the school board to meet with residents and historic preservation experts to review how the district came up with the figures that led to the decision to demolish the school and build a new building.
Historic Preservation professionals note that Cleveland is the home to the most respected architect in the country when it comes to historic preservation, Jonathan Sandvick. Yet, the school system never utilized his expertise when making a decision to demolish the historic John Marshall. A committee structure would allow the Board of Education to bring in such experts and learn how to save historic buildings while saving money and securing waivers from state requirements in order to receive matching dollars.
Cleveland residents should not have to go on a hunger strike to get the attention of the Board of Education. It is clear we need a venue where residents and concerned stakeholders can dialogue with the Board of Education. With a budget of over a billion dollars a year, it is unrealistic to have a bunch of part time appointed volunteers serving as the Board of Education. We need full time paid board members.
Ideally, a new Board of Education would have some at large members that serve the entire school system, and individuals that represent particular academic neighborhoods such as Lincoln West, Rhodes and John Marshall on the West Side. Citizens need to have advocates that can represent their interests, so these members should also be elected officials. The board members, like members of Cleveland City Council, should also have staff so they can research issues and meet with experts.
We as a city should not be using a Transformation Plan that was largely created in private by members of the Greater Cleveland Partnership. We should instead have a plan that was created in committees by an elected Board of Education with public input and dialogue on topics and concerns of residents and stakeholders.