Noble Neighbors hosts panel on school levy
On Oct. 11, Noble Neighbors hosted a panel on the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District’s proposed 5.5-mill operating levy, which will be on the Nov. 8 ballot as Issue 109. The nonprofit neighborhood group invited pro- and anti-levy groups to participate, and gave each side the option to send as few or as many representatives as it wanted, to speak within set time allotments.
Ron Register, school board member; Lisa Hunt, Reaching Heights assistant director; and Jayne Geneva, CH-UH Lay Finance Committee chair, spoke for the pro-levy side.
Charles Drake, of the anti-levy Citizens Leadership Political Action Committee (PAC), spoke for those opposed to the levy.
Meredith White, pastor of Noble Road Presbyterian Church (the site of the forum), greeted the audience of approximately 70. Brenda May, a leader of the Noble Neighbors group, then set out the format for the evening. As with the Noble Neighbors’ candidates’ forum in 2015, audience members were asked to agree to sit quietly while the panelists talked. Questions from attendees were gathered on index cards, and panelists stayed after the formal discussion so that audience members could talk with them individually.
Register told the group about district efforts to better serve students and families, including an education equity plan designed to assure that resources are available where they are most needed—whether to address learning disabilities or provide opportunities for gifted students. He noted that some of the district’s “best leaders” had been directed to the district’s more-challenged schools, and said that work was underway to have Monticello Middle School designated an International Baccalaureate School. “A newly established pre-kindergarten program at Oxford Elementary, which is open to all children in the district, shows the schools’ commitment,” he said.
Geneva decried Ohio’s system for funding public education, stating she had been working since the 1980s to bring about changes to the system, which, despite being declared unconstitutional several years ago, remains in place. The levy is needed now, she said, so that district finances can stay even in the face of declining revenue from property taxes, the schools’ main source of funding. Geneva made note of the $5 million in spending cuts in response to the failure of the May 2015 levy, and criticized the Citizens Leadership PAC for “calculatingly miscalculating” and cherry-picking the numbers it uses to argue that the school district does not make efficient use of its funding.
Hunt added that 2011 revenues are insufficient to cover 2016 expenditures and urged audience members to keep children—“the most vulnerable among us”—in mind when going to the polls. She related the positive experiences of her sons in the CH-UH schools.
Drake then spoke against the levy, stating that the school district had not presented enough information to justify another tax increase. He complained of the district’s lack of transparency and accountability, and stated that school board members lack backgrounds in finance, resulting in their treating school funds as an “open checkbook.”
He presented figures as evidence of the schools’ mismanagement of funds and noted that, at the current rate of spending, the district would need another levy as soon as 2020. Drake also pointed out the long-term decline of enrollment in the public school system—a 13.5 percent contraction since 2006.
Drake cited an increase in the number of teachers in the district, which he said did not make sense in light of the declining enrollment, but gave the system credit for its efforts to improve the district’s underperforming schools. During the rebuttal period that followed, Geneva said the schools could not automatically cut teachers in response to enrollment drops. “We are talking about teaching, not making widgets,” she said.
Panelists argued about whether the state’s system for funding charter schools penalized the public schools and, in response to an audience question about how the system measures success in regard to the state ratings, Register said, “If teachers had the opportunity to teach, students could do better. Having to ‘teach to the test’ makes teaching more difficult.” Hunt stated that the best way to measure success is to observe whether students are well-rounded, happy, and prepared for college and citizenship.
Drake closed by saying he agreed that “we’ll pay later if we don’t educate today,” but went on to ask if, as taxpayers, we could afford this levy. Art, music and sports are important, he stated, but not as important as being able to read, write and think critically.
Watch a video of the forum at https://vimeo.com/187696636.
Vince Reddy is a FutureHeights board member and a 20-year resident of Cleveland Heights.