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Published: Friday, 10/24/2003

Results dire if levy fails again, says Silverman

BY SANDRA SVOBODA
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Toledo Board of Education President Peter Silverman concedes that it's “legitimate” to criticize the district's advance list of possible school closures, layoffs, cuts to busing, and the elimination of some sports if the district Nov. 4 operating levy fails.

But Mr. Silverman said publicizing what's at stake if the 6.5-mill, five-year measure is again voted down is preferable to having an uneducated voting population that doesn't understand the dire consequences the district could face.

“It's a very, very ugly situation,” he said. “If this does fail, my guess is that a number of the programs ... will be eliminated. We'll probably have to close a school in each area. Sports will be cut, and we'll probably be looking at layoffs of another 300 people.”

The district is again asking voters to renew the levy, which expires in December after three years. It provides about $16 million annually to the district's roughly $328 million budget.

If the measure fails, school officials have said no area would be spared from budget reductions, including the superintendent's cabinet, teachers, bus drivers, and services such as busing.

Toledo voters defeated the district's first attempt to pass the measure in August, 55 percent to 45 percent with just about a 17 percent voter turnout.

The results sent a message to the district.

“Even though not many people voted, it came across loud and clear there was a lot of anger toward us,” Mr. Silverman said. “People want to know what's going on.”

Between the August vote and now, the district has held meetings in each of the seven high school areas to answer questions about the district's finances, the planned cuts, and other issues. Hundreds of people attended, Superintendent Eugene Sanders said.

But district officials acknowledge voter opposition remains.

Additional issues like the public's trust of the district, inherent anti-tax sentiment, a lack of confidence in school administrators, anger over the teacher's union refusal to accept a co-payment and save the district millions of dollars could lead to thousands of “no” votes for the measure next month.

Those items have overshadowed rising proficiency test scores and graduation rates, $2 million in grant money to improve high schools, and innovative elementary schools, including single-gender academies, board member Larry Sykes said.

“I think often times we do not promote the positive things that we do as a district,” Mr. Sykes said. “I think trust comes from us being out in the community, engaging the public, and engaging parents and teachers and children.”

In addition, the Urban Coalition, a network of district watchdog groups, campaigned against the levy before the August election and earlier this month came out against the November request.

Flute Rice, the coalition president, said the group members' perceived personal agendas have “nothing to do” with opposition to the levy.

Mr. Rice criticized the board's public statement about possible school closures if the levy doesn't pass.

“Schools are not going to close. I don't see why people keep saying that. They're not going to close. I've never known a school to close when the levies didn't pass,” he said.

Mr. Rice is a former Toledo Public Schools principal who lives in Springfield Township. He said this week he plans to move to Toledo next month.

Another coalition member, Steven Flagg, who is the co-president of Parents for Public Schools, said the district doesn't adequately evaluate its programs. Thus, he doesn't know if money is being properly spent.

“They may have value; the problem is this school district cannot justify it for us,” Mr. Flagg said. “I want an accounting of it.”

He said the district's announcement last week of a panel to review the district's financial practices wasn't enough.

“I believe it's more of a political situation to win votes rather than have any substance,” Mr. Flagg said.

The coalition's members, from several district watchdog groups, have called for the Toledo Plan's elimination, the program to evaluate and hire first-year teachers; a rewriting of the district's discipline code, and a moratorium on the school construction project.

Those measures show the group's commitment to grass-roots efforts to improve the community, Mr. Flagg said.

“That's what we're trying to do. We're practicing our democratic rights,” he said.

Mr. Silverman said the board has some of the same concerns as the coalition.

“They raise some very good issues,” he said. “We're very concerned about suspensions. We're very concerned about the evaluation of teachers. We're very concerned about the building plan.”

But Mr. Silverman said the groups should work together rather than be at odds over the levy. “I wish at the end of their conversation they'd say, `There are all these problems. The board recognizes there are these problems. We might disagree, but we're going to support the levy and work for positive change,'” he said. “Let's pass this levy. Let's not face catastrophic cuts. Then let's fight for the changes we want.”

The levy is the subject of The Editors, which will be broadcast at 8:30 tonight on WGTE-TV, Channel 30, and at 12:30 p.m. Sunday on WBGU-TV, Channel 27.



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