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Published: Saturday, 9/18/2010

Tough choices, for TPS and voters

In a few weeks, The Blade will state its formal position on the big property tax increase Toledo Public Schools is seeking on the November ballot.

And if you were to ask me today what that recommendation will be, I couldn't tell you - not because it's a secret, but because we just don't know yet.

I suspect many TPS taxpayers face similar uncertainty. If voters reject the millage - the largest request for new tax money the school system ever has made - won't that punish the district's 24,000 students even more?

TPS leaders, citing budget constraints, already have deprived students of many of their sports and transportation options and stuck them in bigger classes caused by teacher layoffs. How much more can we take away from them?

But if voters approve the millage, won't that subsidize - and appear to validate - a system that is failing in too many ways? A system in which, the United Way of Greater Toledo reminds us, two out of five students do not graduate on time, or at all.

A system that has, by the Ohio Department of Education's reckoning, more schools in "academic emergency" than it did a year ago. A system that, in just the past year, lost more than 5 percent of its enrollment - a vote of no confidence in the district by parents that is even more emphatic than the drubbing voters gave the last TPS tax request in May.

Toledo Board of Education President Bob Vasquez insists the district needs "total transformational change." He's right. Such change, of course, won't occur by Election Day.

But over the next six weeks, school board members, TPS executives, and leaders of district unions will show us how receptive they are, or aren't, to the prospect of basic change guided by - not imposed on - this community.

And without clear and convincing evidence that TPS is ready for reform, the loss of the millage vote will be the next, but hardly the last, disaster for the district and its students.

You hear clamor for an outside audit of TPS finances. Given the district's ability to miscount $824,000 in its budget that could have softened the impact of its layoffs of crossing guards, such a review surely is necessary.

But looking at the district's finances is only a first step, and not even the most important one. There needs to be a thorough, independent examination of every aspect of the way TPS does business: the number of schools it operates, its administrative bureaucracy, its labor and vendor contracts, its instructional strategies, its system of teacher evaluation, its information technology - anything that affects what happens in the classroom.

That study must include all of the district's stakeholders - not just its internal constituencies, but also parents and students, taxpayers, employers, higher-education leaders, everyone. It must be followed by a clear agenda for action, with explicit goals, timetables, and measures of success and accountability that the district will be expected to meet.

TPS has ignored similar efforts in the past. If this exercise is to have any credibility, the district can't steer the investigation.

"Even doctors have doctors," says John Jones, president of the Greater Toledo Urban League, whose opposition to the May tax proposal contributed to its defeat. "For the district to think it can review itself - if that's not the most arrogant thing, it's the most asinine thing."

Nor can district, union, or political leaders be allowed to dictate the composition of the review panel, or limit the scope of its inquiry. "We need a partnership, not a dictatorship," says Steven Flagg, a longtime observer and critic of TPS. "We need a vision of community, not a fortress mentality."

To those knee-jerk defenders of the TPS status quo who will dismiss these observations as "typical Blade negativity - you never write about all the good things happening in our schools": Spare me.

Last week, we published an inspiring story about Birmingham Elementary School, which has bucked the odds - poverty, aging facilities - to achieve an "excellent" rating on the latest state report card. Our report showed how talented and committed teachers, involved parents, and the intelligent use of technology can achieve great things for students.

And it immediately raised the question: Why aren't these results, to use the current eduspeak, scalable? Why is Birmingham more the exception than the rule in TPS?

Denial and defensiveness won't get TPS where it needs to go. Neither will more money for more of the same.

To my mind, a showing of shared sacrifice would offer the most dramatic immediate expression of the district's openness to change. TPS students and parents already have had to sacrifice a lot; they weren't given a choice. The typical homeowner is being asked to cough up a couple of hundred dollars more a year in school taxes - a real sacrifice in these lean economic times.

Four-fifths of the TPS budget goes to employee compensation. Where is the comparable economic sacrifice by district employees, from top administrators on down - not five or 10 years ago, but right now?

Leaders of the teachers union note, accurately, that the district is laying off teachers at the same time it is accepting federal emergency aid intended to avert teacher layoffs. They fail to note that the union could preserve at least some of its members' jobs by making meaningful - not cosmetic - concessions on pay and benefits, as Lucas County sheriff's deputies have done.

What do you think? If you pay taxes to TPS, what will determine your vote on the millage? Those of us who are struggling to make up our minds want to hear from you.

One thing is clear: This fall's debate over the tax proposal offers TPS its best chance - and possibly its last chance - to launch the reform it needs.

"The community wants to help," says Mr. Jones. "The work won't be done by November 2, but the mechanism can be put in place."

He adds: "This is one of the most critical moments for this city. If we get this wrong, it's going to be very painful for a very long time."

David Kushma is editor of The Blade.

Contact him at: dkushma@theblade.com



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