TPS fortunes depend on board’s juggling act

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    Remember the guy on the old Ed Sullivan TV show who would spin more than a dozen plates and bowls on sticks — as I recall, his act also included eggs, glasses, and spoons — without letting any of them drop and crash?


    Brenda Hill and Cecelia Adams remember. These days, the new president and vice president of the Toledo Board of Education say they can relate to that routine more than ever before.

    Ms. Hill taught in Toledo Public Schools for more than 35 years. Ms. Adams is a former TPS administrator and science teacher. As the school board’s leaders, they have a lot to juggle — and the stakes are much higher than some smashed tableware.

    In the next few months, they and their board colleagues must: hire a new superintendent, ratify new contracts with the district’s fractious employee unions, respond to an outside audit of the school system that is likely to criticize its performance, prepare for a possible TPS takeover of the local Head Start preschool program, endure continued fallout from the district’s data-manipulation antics of previous years, keep the budget balanced despite fiscal storm clouds, and plan to place yet another property tax request before skeptical voters this November.

    Board members also must work with TPS executives to reverse this year’s downgrade on the district’s report card from Columbus. State education officials say TPS hasn’t been adding enough value to its students’ achievement — and their grading standards are getting tougher.

    “It’s a fuzzy, murky formula,” Ms. Hill told me. “We’re penalized when we’re constantly changing and working to improve, and making do with less money.”

    Ms. Hill and Ms. Adams visited The Blade last week to offer reassurance that the board is ready to address all of the items on its spinning plates. Sometimes, though, board members seem determined to create their own problems, by micromanaging some issues while glossing over others.

    I believe the school board made a mistake in accepting the resignation last month of TPS Superintendent Jerome Pecko — which did not appear notably voluntary — without having a plan in place to name a successor quickly. Board members will meet this week to discuss the search process they will use; Mr. Pecko’s contract ends July 31.

    The board president and vice president say they’re confident the district will hire an experienced, charismatic, talented leader, from within or outside TPS. They pledge to solicit suggestions from parents and taxpayers about the new superintendent.

    But board members don’t have the luxury of devoting all of their attention to the executive search. They also must maintain the district’s precarious budget, although that largely depends on matters that are out of their hands.

    Unless President Obama and Congress reach a compromise this week, across-the-board spending cuts threaten to deprive TPS of millions of dollars of federal aid to programs that help disadvantaged and disabled students. That could lead to teacher layoffs and larger classes.

    And Gov. John Kasich’s new school funding formula does not increase state aid to the district in the next school year, after the current state budget slashed the amount of money TPS gets from Columbus.

    “For us to get nothing, or next to nothing, is shameful,” Ms. Adams says. “We’re taking care of the most needy in this city.”

    Leaders of the Toledo Federation of Teachers and other district unions say that during this spring’s contract talks, they will seek to recover the givebacks they accepted in their current agreements. Ms. Hill says she understands that position: “We’ve squeezed people, and we’re near the point where we can’t squeeze anymore,” she says.

    So the board president says TPS “absolutely, desperately” needs voter approval of at least a millage renewal this year. She isn’t ruling out the possibility that the district will seek a tax increase, even though voters soundly rejected its plea for a property tax hike last November. It’s a matter, she says, of “civic duty.”

    The challenges that confront TPS continue to grow. Nearly four out of five of the district’s 23,000 students are poor. Educating children whose homes may not meet their basic needs, much less provide the educational support and enrichment available to better-off families, is a task whose difficulty isn’t reflected in a single mark on the district’s report card. “Poverty undermines everything we do in education,” Ms. Adams says.

    The rate of student transience is similarly high. In recent years, as many as one-fourth of TPS students didn’t stay in the same school for the full academic year. In some schools, the turnover rate was closer to one-third or even one-half. Such instability disrupts learning and prevents academic continuity.

    But there is modest cause for optimism as well. Internal TPS testing suggests that students in kindergarten through eighth grade are improving in reading and math performance. A few chronically low-achieving schools, notably Glenwood Elementary, appear to be bucking the odds and showing remarkable gains — evidence, district officials say, that the two-year-old TPS reform plan is paying off.

    The district’s leaders will need more such success stories if they are to persuade voters to support any levy request this fall. Ms. Adams says she hopes the pending performance audit will identify savings the district can make and demonstrate to taxpayers.

    But Ms. Hill and Ms. Adams insist that Toledoans need to know about, and acknowledge, good things that are happening in TPS.

    “This is a dynamic, vibrant, progressive district,” Ms. Adams says. “We’ve got to get that message out, and give people a reason to support the schools the way they should.”

    David Kushma is editor of The Blade.

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