Thursday, Apr 26, 2018
One of America's Great Newspapers ~ Toledo, Ohio

David Kushma

Foley's job could be the stuff of reality TV

I WOULDN'T want any job whose dangers are the stuff of reality TV: ice-road trucker, lumberjack, commercial fisherman, high-iron worker. But these days, I'd add to that list a job whose demands are less physically perilous but no more appealing: Toledo Public Schools superintendent.

The current holder of that title, John Foley, has a very short time to plug a very large budget hole. To help do that, he's trying to persuade district voters to approve a big new income tax in the teeth of a deep and persistent recession.

If they don't, and maybe even if they do, he is offering nightmarish options for balancing his budget: laying off hundreds of teachers, shortening the school day, abolishing interscholastic sports, shutting down some of the district's most successful academic initiatives, cutting way back on student transportation while eliminating school crossing guards.

And once he wraps up the budget, he's out of a job, since his contract expires July 31.

"There's not much sleep going on these days," Mr. Foley acknowledged last week. Along with Board of Education President Bob Vasquez and district Treasurer Daniel Romano, the superintendent visited The Blade's editorial board to state the case for his tax and budget proposals.

Mr. Foley concedes the obvious: The district faces a hard slog to win passage of its May 4 ballot measure, which would impose a permanent 0.75 percent tax on earned income. That levy would cost a typical taxpayer, who earns Toledo's median annual household income of about $34,000, roughly $255 a year.

That's a lot of money. But the superintendent says that a poll the district did before it put the income tax on the ballot conveyed a clear message of "voter fatigue" - that Toledoans don't want to pay more in school property taxes, which must be reauthorized periodically by voters.

Instead, he says, the poll suggests that voters are willing, at least in principle, to consider the income tax. They are roughly equally divided on the issue, he adds, with a large complement of undecided voters.

Since he can't assume that the tax will pass, or that school unions will give him the employee pay and benefit concessions he seeks, one plan the school board will vote on this week would balance the budget solely with spending cuts, while another would include the new tax revenue. Mr. Foley insists the reductions he is proposing are designed to protect the district's basic, state-mandated academic program.

"These are hard cuts - they're not easy decisions," he said. "We need to ask: What is the real mission of Toledo Public Schools? What's our core? What do you, as a community, value in a school system? If you value it, you're going to have to make some choices."

Critics contend that the school district is applying its criteria selectively, maintaining some nonessential programs and keeping open unneeded schools while jettisoning success stories such as Toledo Technology Academy and Early College High School. They accuse the district of overestimating its projected enrollment and revenue losses to make the district's fiscal picture look worse than it is.

It's a lot for Toledoans to sort out on a tight deadline. I'm not sure I would want to enroll my children in a school system that carried out the cuts the district is contemplating. But those who oppose Mr. Foley's plan, like those who oppose Toledo Mayor Mike Bell's deficit-reduction plan, need to do more than merely reject it.

They need to offer better ideas, on the revenue and spending sides. Don't simply assert there is fat in the budget; identify it.

The Blade will state its position on the school tax measure in several weeks. But I couldn't tell you yet where we'll come down.

Like many of you, I need to see and hear more. District leaders and the school board haven't been timely or detailed enough in telling taxpayers, voters, and parents of the system's 26,000 students exactly what they want to do to cut the costs of employee compensation, which consume four-fifths of the district's budget.

I think Mr. Foley has been too deferential to the district's bargaining units - especially the teachers union, which has shown no reticence about attacking his threatened layoffs even as it resists his proposals for givebacks. During his conversation with us, the superintendent refused to state publicly the size and nature of the concessions he wants, claiming that to do so would "paint the unions into a corner."

Mr. Foley and Mr. Vasquez say a low-key, closed-door approach to contract negotiations has worked in the past and should work again. I'm dubious, but we'll find out soon.

Mr. Foley is scheduled to leave his post this summer because the school board refused last year to give him the contract he sought. You have to wonder what talented, successful educational administrator would want to come to Toledo to succeed him, given the school district's myriad problems, if he or she has other opportunities to pursue.

There probably won't be a reality TV series anytime soon that portrays the challenges faced by big-city schools superintendents such as Mr. Foley. There ought to be.

David Kushma is editor of The Blade.

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