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Published: Sunday, 2/10/2013

Board game

Jerome Pecko. Jerome Pecko.
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The Toledo Board of Education faces a long, tough, urgent agenda that would tax the skills of a highly effective governing body — a description few would apply to this school board. So naturally, board members think the time is ideal to start looking for a new chief executive.

After the board met privately late last month, Superintendent Jerome Pecko announced he would not “accept” a renewal of his contract when it expires July 31. Board members still won’t tell taxpayers and parents whether they forced out the superintendent, who had expressed interest in staying on. The board’s disdain for public accountability is not new, but it’s still distressing.

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What can Mr. Pecko’s successor look forward to? To avoid crippling budget cuts, Toledo Public Schools must persuade voters to renew the district’s operating levy this year — after they trounced a proposed millage increase just last November. The new school aid formula included in Gov. John Kasich’s proposed state budget offers the district no increase in basic funding in the next school year, after two years of big cuts.

TPS must work to reverse its falling marks on its annual report card from the state, although that grading is about to get tougher. It must reach new contracts this year with its teachers and other employees, who appear in no mood for austerity pleas.

The district must deal with continued fallout from the admission that it essentially deleted test scores of chronically truant students from the data it gave the state to compile past report cards. It awaits an outside audit of its performance that was largely forced on it by right-wing activists. Amid these demands, TPS is competing to take over the Head Start program for disadvantaged preschool children in Toledo and Lucas County.

The school board evidently made Mr. Pecko the scapegoat for last year’s levy defeat. Board members also appeared to hold him responsible for this year’s report card, which downgraded TPS for the first time in five years, from “continuous improvement” to “academic watch.”

The superintendent, with some merit, linked the downgrade to initial disruption caused by his plan to reform district operations. Since then, he said, the plan has shown signs of achieving permanent improvement in TPS classrooms.

That didn’t seem to impress the school board. Neither did the transparency Mr. Pecko displayed in ending the scrubbing of student test scores last summer, and in disclosing the practice voluntarily.

But it hardly matters, because board members think Toledoans don’t deserve to know the circumstances of Mr. Pecko’s departure, or how the board divided on the question. Board president Brenda Hill initially claimed she was legally prohibited from discussing what happened in the closed session that sealed the superintendent’s fate — a clear misstatement of Ohio’s open-meetings law.

Even more alarming, the board separated itself from Mr. Pecko without a succession plan in place to name a new superintendent. Board members evidently learned nothing from their haphazard search that led to Mr. Pecko’s hiring three years ago.

Despite that bad process, Mr. Pecko has performed about as well under difficult conditions as anyone could reasonably have expected. Among other things, he has reinstated neighborhood elementary schools, reformed the district’s special-education services, negotiated effectively with TPS unions, and empowered a cadre of bright young administrators.

It’s fair to ask how many superior candidates, inside or outside TPS, will raise their hands for the Toledo job. Mr. Pecko’s top deputy, chief academic officer James Gault, is seeking the superintendent’s post in the Rossford school system.

Who would seek to run a demoralized district that has so many huge problems that must be tackled so quickly, while working with a dysfunctional board that often has proved more of a self-serving, micromanaging, politicized obstacle than a source of support?

TPS voters have the periodic opportunity to conduct their own performance reviews of board members. If the district is to improve, those evaluations need to get tougher.


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