A new school year usually brings hope, a fresh start, exciting possibilities. But as classes resume in the Toledo Public Schools, it's hard to find much cause for optimism.
Imagine you're one of the 26,000 or so (for now - enrollment is dropping) young people who attend a TPS school. This year, you're more likely to be making a longer walk to and from school, along a riskier route, because the district has slashed bus service to cut costs.
Once you get to school, you'll be sitting in larger classes, because the district laid off more than 200 teachers to help plug its budget chasm. If you attended Libbey High School last year, you're at an unfamiliar new school; Libbey is closed.
After school, if you like to play sports, your options are limited because the district has curtailed its athletic offerings, again to cut costs. None of these developments is likely to fill you with joy about heading back to class.
Now imagine you're the parent of a TPS student. Once you figure out how to get him or her to school safely every day, you face rising costs and fees for classroom supplies.
You read that more TPS schools than last year are in what the state calls "academic emergency." That other school you've been considering - the charter school, the private school, the suburban school - may start to look like a better alternative to your kid's current school.
Now imagine you're a TPS taxpayer. Even after voters emphatically rejected the district's income tax plan in May, school leaders are back with a proposal on the November ballot for one of the largest new taxes TPS has ever sought. The levy would raise your property taxes by about $200 a year if you own a $100,000 home.
Maybe you're among the half of all American workers who have lost their jobs or endured a cut in their wages or hours in the past 2 1/2 years. In a depressed community such as Toledo, that share is likely higher.
Or maybe you're a local contractor who would like to work with TPS, but runs afoul of arcane state bidding rules that help send much of that business out of town or out of Ohio.
Either way, you're not likely to appreciate lectures about your "responsibility" to support the big TPS millage. You understand that the recession has afflicted the school district; state aid is down and property values are depressed.
But the bad economy has hit you hard too. You want persuasive evidence that TPS is ready to make big changes in the way it operates, financially and academically, before you'll put up even more money.
Now imagine you're Toledo's new schools superintendent, Jerome Pecko. You've been on the job barely a month, but your honeymoon already is over. You've joined a district that slashed its budget by $39 million, about one-seventh, last year - and faces an even greater projected deficit this year.
You're looking forward to the $10.8 million TPS will get from the federal Race for the Top program. You don't know how much you'll get from the new stimulus package Congress passed to help save school employees' jobs - maybe another $5 million or $6 million. But this money, however helpful, is one time only. It doesn't resolve the district's structural deficit.
So you've got barely two months to reverse public attitudes and persuade voters to support the TPS millage. Although you had nothing to do with it, the allegation that a former district executive and an accomplice stole nearly $700,000 from TPS will be fresh in voters' minds throughout the tax campaign.
Once you deliver the tax vote - if you can - then you can turn your attention to your day job: improving academic performance and graduation rates, especially among the district's disadvantaged students, and streamlining the TPS bureaucracy.
Is there a bright spot in any of this? The district's latest state report card shows TPS making "continuous improvement." TPS can point proudly to such schools as the Toledo Technology Academy and the new Woodward High School.
Otherwise, the district's crisis - and the word is fairly used - provides the opportunity, and the imperative, to make the sort of systemic reforms that TPS traditionally has disdained.
Even if voters approve the tax hike, and surely if they don't, further reductions in school programs are inevitable. But the district no longer can or should work so strenuously to protect the 80 percent of the school budget that goes to employee pay and benefits.
The essentially symbolic "concessions" we've seen so far aren't nearly enough. The district needs to examine not only its compensation systems, but also such issues as linking teacher evaluation to student performance. It must take a fresh look at tenure, seniority, work rules, and even merit pay.
To do that, Superintendent Pecko and the school board will have to take on the district's rigid but powerful unions and their political allies. That has to happen sooner or later. It might as well be now.
It won't be easy for someone such as Mr. Pecko, who is collecting a salary and a pension at the same time, to tell other school employees they need to make major economic sacrifices. But after what the district already has demanded from students, parents, and taxpayers, it must be done.
Business, professional, and civil-rights groups that historically have been among the school district's strongest supporters, such as the Greater Toledo Urban League, have made clear they want big changes at TPS. The position such groups take on the tax measure will be critical to its passage or defeat.
Despite all the obstacles and challenges, I see plenty of goodwill in this community toward the city's schools. People want the schools to change and improve, and they want to do what they can to advance the reform effort.
If TPS squanders this opportunity to achieve what Board of Education president Bob Vasquez concedes is necessary "transformational change," it isn't clear when - or if - the district will ever get a better chance.
David Kushma is editor of The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org