GCC identifies key challenges facing Cleveland Heights

Khalilah Worley, associate organizer of GCC, talks to the crowd at St. Paul's Episcopal Church.

More than 80 Cleveland Heights residents came together on Sunday, Jan. 31, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Fairmount Boulevard, to identify what they consider to be the biggest challenges facing Cleveland Heights.

Called the “Cleveland Heights Listening Session,” the program was initiated by Greater Cleveland Congregations (GCC), an organization representing 40 different religious congregations in the Cleveland area, as well as partner organizations in Cuyahoga County. GCC comprises diverse groups of Catholic and Protestant churches; the Islamic Center of Cleveland; Jewish synagogues and temples; and Unitarian Universalists.

Members of both St. Paul’s and Forest Hill Presbyterian Church, located at the intersection of Monticello Boulevard and Lee Road, organized the program. Khalilah Worley, associate organizer of GCC, moderated. Two representatives from Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish's staff attended the event.

The two-hour program began with an opening prayer by the Rev. Richard Israel, associate rector at St. Paul’s, followed by a brief history of Cleveland Heights presented by Joyce Roper, a member of Church of the Redeemer (United Methodist) on South Taylor Road.

The attendees then broke into nine groups for a 40-minute discussion of what they considered to be the most pressing issues facing Cleveland Heights.

Ultimately, they identified the two biggest issues facing Cleveland Heights:

The first is the generally negative perception of the CH-UH public school system, especially in the eyes of outsiders considering moving to the area. This negative view is countered by the positive experiences of many residents whose children attend Heights public schools. The problem is seen as being exacerbated by subjective school "ratings" on real estate websites, such as Zillow.com, which rate school districts based on state standardized tests. Currently, all CH-UH public schools are rated at the red-yellow "low" level, far from the green "high" level rating. A score of 2 out of a possible 10 is now assigned to Cleveland Heights High School.

The second most pressing issue is the ongoing decay of many Cleveland Heights houses and buildings. Many in attendance cited absentee landlords, a higher number of rentals in the area, and high income-tax rates that prevent some potential homeowners from purchasing homes in the city.

Worley acknowledged that the two predominant issues were related.

In addition to those two key issues, breakout groups also reported these concerns: improving community relations with city police; safety in some neighborhoods and schools; juvenile misbehavior, while traveling to and from school; declining housing values and business districts, including Severance Town Center and Lee Road.

Residents also expressed concern about a proposed Circle K convenience store and gas station, which developers seek to build on the current site of the former Center Mayfield Theater. 

GCC formed in 2011. “It was organized to be a voice for citizens so they could take a place alongside government and business interests to bring social justice to Cleveland,” said Israel. When GCC formed, Israel explained, it identified five key issues to focus on: healthcare, jobs, criminal justice, education and sustainable food. Since then, it has added gun violence as a sixth key issue.

St. Paul’s became involved with GCC when the organization undertook a campaign to bring about an expansion of Medicaid coverage in Ohio. “We managed to get the governor to put a Medicaid expansion in the state budget, and, as a result, 300,000 to 400,000 people who were previously uninsured were able to get healthcare,” Israel said. He noted that GCC also worked with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District to help pass its school levy and to persuade the government to support the Cleveland Plan, which gave more autonomy to local schools. Israel added that the organization also managed to get Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and the Cleveland Police Department to sign a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice to reform the police department.

After GCC’s initial successes, many of which involved the city of Cleveland, the organization decided it was time to work toward similar successes in other cities, including Cleveland Heights, where nine of GCC’s 40 congregations are based.

Cleveland Heights Council Member Mary Dunbar, who attended the Jan. 31 GCC event, invited participants to the Cleveland Heights Master Plan community meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 7 p.m., to discuss and set priorities for strategic development. The meeting, to be held at the CH Community Center, 1 Monticello Blvd., will introduce county planning staff to the public and provide an overview of the planning process. Current conditions will be reviewed and the public will be asked to provide feedback.

GCC is planning two future meetings to address the issues identified at its Jan. 31 session, so that the group can work collaboratively to find solutions. More information about the organization can be found at www.greaterclevelandcongregations.org.

James Henke

James Henke, a Cleveland Heights resident, was a writer and editor at Rolling Stone magazine for 15 years. He is on the board of FutureHeights, and is co-chair of the Heights Observer Editorial Advisory Committee. Andrea C. Turner, Heights Observer managing editor, contributed to this article.

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Volume 9, Issue 3, Posted 11:30 AM, 02.02.2016