Commentary

New TPS chief wears campaign on his sleeve — and neck

If the tax renewal is approved, TPS leaders vow to expand the district’s transformation plan

10/6/2013
BY DAVE KUSHMA
BLADE EDITOR
TPS interim Superintendent Romules Durant wears the district's monogram on his shirt cuff.
TPS interim Superintendent Romules Durant wears the district's monogram on his shirt cuff.

Dave Kushma.
Dave Kushma.

Romules Durant’s well-tailored dress shirt has a large monogram on its collar and cuff — displaying not his own initials, but those of his employer: TPS.

“If you love what you represent,” the interim superintendent of Toledo Public Schools explains, “you wear it on your sleeve.”

In addition to running the school system, Mr. Durant is campaigning nonstop for voter approval of a TPS property tax proposal on next month’s ballot. Even though the district seeks only the renewal of a current levy, not a tax increase, the new schools chief — on the job officially since Aug. 1 — is leaving nothing to chance.

“We’ve got our ground game, our phone banks, our TV ads, our open houses,” Mr. Durant told me last week. “I’m at a community meeting almost every night and in the churches every Sunday. The message is: We’re TPS proud.”

The district is asking voters to extend a 6.5-mill operating levy for five years. The tax would cost the owner of a $100,000 home about $150 a year.

If the renewal is approved, Superintendent Durant and other TPS leaders say they will expand the district’s transformation plan, which they claim is improving the academic performance of the system’s 22,000 students even as it saves money. And if city voters reject Issue 24 — well, school officials don’t want to talk about that.

Under the reform plan, TPS has re-established neighborhood elementary schools that enroll students from kindergarten through eighth grade; Mr. Durant says these schools have proven popular with parents. The plan enables students to take courses via “distance learning” that their schools don’t offer. It has enhanced programs for academically talented, struggling, and special-needs students.

Mr. Durant describes the creation in city high schools of themed curricula — performing arts, international studies, health care. He envisions a new high school that would enable young men and women to learn in single-sex classrooms in different wings of the same building, while they have opportunities to mingle socially.

He speaks of new TPS programs that are part of the transformation plan, from electronic textbooks to summer school to expanded breakfast service to a new districtwide code of student discipline. He pledges to build on the district’s partnerships with local social-service agencies to turn more schools into neighborhood centers.

Dennis Johnson, the president of Brooks Insurance, is co-chairman of the campaign committee that is promoting the TPS levy. He says Toledo businesses have a direct interest in the passage of the tax issue, since good public schools protect property values and prepare tomorrow’s workers.

“We all need talent to remain competitive in the marketplace,” Mr. Johnson says. “TPS is a source of what employers are looking for. We’ve got a long way to go, but progress has been made. Now we need to keep the engine moving.”

The tax campaign hit a bump in recent weeks, after TPS received its annual report card from the state. Although the district earned high marks in several areas, it failed on five measures, including graduation rates and annual improvement in student performance. Antitax types cite the report card in opposing the millage renewal.

Mr. Durant says the numbers on the report card don’t add up: How, he asks, can TPS have done so well on individual value-added measures and at the same time so poorly on its overall progress report? He says he is seeking more of an answer from the Ohio Department of Education than its earlier bland assertion that “your report card data are correct.” He hasn’t gotten one.

TPS has just ratified a new three-year contract with the Toledo Federation of Teachers, ensuring labor peace during the tax campaign. Because of previous economic concessions, TPS teachers now tend to earn less than their counterparts in suburban Toledo districts and in Ohio’s other large urban school systems.

Still, Mr. Durant describes the district’s labor relations as cordial, and employee morale as high. Mr. Johnson adds that TPS unions and other local labor groups are playing major roles in the levy campaign.

In what could be another positive development, TPS reached an agreement last week with other local agencies to submit a revised bid for a federal grant to run the Head Start preschool program in Toledo and Lucas County. The district’s previous application was rejected, and a company in Denver now has the contract temporarily — a humiliation for the city.

Mr. Durant says TPS has executed several cost-cutting proposals from an outside performance audit of the district. But he notes that sluggish home values in the city and deep reductions in state aid — including money following students who have left TPS for charter and private schools — have depressed district revenues during and after the Great Recession.

If voters defeat the levy, TPS could be forced to return to the dark days of larger classes, laid-off teachers, closed schools, and slashed academic and after-school programs. But district and campaign officials say they want to focus instead on the advantages a positive vote will confer. Brenda Hill, who is retiring at year’s end as president of the Toledo Board of Education, says simply: “Failure is not an option.”

Along with the citywide campaign for the TPS tax plan, organizers are conducting specially tailored efforts in each of the district’s high school attendance areas. These mini-campaigns are based on friends and neighbors talking to each other about the levy, providing word-of-mouth affirmation.

Polls suggest that voters who know nothing about the TPS tax proposal are about equally likely to favor or oppose it, Mr. Durant says. But when they hear what the district plans to do with proceeds from the levy, he says, support increases substantially.

Mr. Johnson adds, since Mr. Durant is too modest to do so, that the same polls show Toledoans giving the new superintendent high approval ratings. They appear to appreciate his local roots — Waite High School, the University of Toledo and its football team, and a long career with TPS despite his relative youth (he’s 37) — as well as his evident passion for his hometown.

Mr. Durant and other TPS advocates hope that voters will translate such goodwill into financial support at the ballot box next month. But they concede that the city’s still-sluggish economy leaves the outcome uncertain.

“The city needs to leverage the district,” Mr. Durant says. “Strong schools, strong community.”

David Kushma is editor of The Blade.

Contact him at: dkushma@theblade.com or on Twitter @dkushma1