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Published: 6/6/2010

For TPS and county, crisis and opportunity

The line attributed to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel - "Rule one: Never allow a crisis to go to waste" - has been repeated so often it's become a cliche. But like other platitudes, it persists because it's rooted in truth.

The economic crisis in our community, reflected in a stubbornly high jobless rate and plummeting tax revenues, is forcing us to examine the performance of such big public institutions as Lucas County government and Toledo Public Schools. The conclusion: Neither entity is working, and nothing short of a bumper-to-bumper overhaul of both will do.

Don't take my word for it. Listen to the people at the top of these governments.

On this page, County Commissioner Ben Konop explains why he's leading the effort to reform county government this year. Toledo Board of Education president Bob Vasquez seeks an equally thorough shakeup of the school district: its finances, its curriculum, its organizational structure.

Mr. Vasquez made his pitch last week to an audience of movers and shakers in the realm of local economic development. Mr. Konop and other advocates of county reform are selling their plan largely by touting its ability to make county government a much more powerful engine of development and job growth.

In a conversation before he took his plan public, Mr. Vasquez insisted that TPS is not mismanaged. All the same, he told me, the school system "cannot continue to lurch from crisis to crisis."

"We're going down a bad road," he conceded. "I'm not interested in rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. I don't want incremental change - I want total transformational change. We need to fix the whole thing. I don't think this community wants TPS to fail."

It's not surprising that the school board president seeks to recruit outside civic and academic leaders, and especially business executives, to the blue-ribbon commission he envisions to propose practical and comprehensive district reforms. While TPS confronts an overwhelming array of challenges, voters repudiated the district's leadership when they emphatically rejected the school tax plan on last month's ballot.

After board members finish plugging the $39 million gap in next year's school budget, they face an even larger projected deficit the following year, as state aid and local property tax collections continue to drop and federal stimulus money goes away.

That means more spending cuts, and more pain and fewer choices for students and their parents. At the same time, a reduced credit rating limits the district's opportunity to borrow money.

As district enrollment declines, more school buildings become superfluous. But as we saw in the controversy over Libbey High School, closing any school attracts passionate community opposition.

The list of finalists to replace Schools Superintendent John Foley, who is scheduled to step down next month, has a decidedly second-rate feel. And even threats to lay off hundreds of teachers and other school employees don't seem to faze the district's unions, which continue to resist meaningful economic concessions.

Amid these dilemmas, the school district likely will have to put another tax proposal on the ballot, perhaps as early as November. So it's smart of Mr. Vasquez to start seeking community support for his reform agenda now, especially among the business and civic groups that opposed the last tax plan.

It's also smart of Mr. Vasquez to propose building on the district's strengths - its academic magnets, its single-gender academies - and to develop a realistic price tag for doing so.

There's a potential contradiction, though. Mr. Vasquez concedes that district unions are such an important constituent group, they need to be represented on the school commission. He insists that his demand for change "is not union-busting."

But he also argues that "our contracts limit what we can do - there's no way we can address these issues without looking at our contracts. There are going to be concessions."

The proposal for a county government study commission, advanced by incumbent county officials, is clearly a recipe for delay and preservation of the status quo. If union officials gain virtual veto power over the school panel's deliberations, there is the prospect of the same kind of stalemate. Should that happen, Mr. Vasquez's warnings could sound to taxpayers like so much crying wolf.

Another durable cliche is that the Chinese word for "crisis" is composed of characters that represent "danger" and "opportunity." Mandarin scholars will tell you that's not true, but to adapt Mr. Emanuel's construction, why let a nice-sounding legend go to waste?

Amid the crises and dangers in county government and city schools, there are opportunities to achieve real, positive change. Let's make the most of them while we can.

David Kushma is editor of The Blade.

Contact him at: dkushma@theblade.com



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