After two failed levies and deep budget cuts this year, school and community leaders are eager to engage the public about school problems and potential solutions. A forum also might increase chances that a TPS levy may pass sometime in the near-future, possibly in the spring.
The school system this year laid off employees and cut services, including curtailing bus service.
The district now faces another deficit next school year projected at $38 million. More layoffs are imminent, and administrators are examining how the system can better use its facilities, which could mean closing schools, Toledo Board of Education President Bob Vasquez said Wednesday. A public forum or summit held in February could help guide difficult decisions, he added.
The consultant is Steve Cady, a Bowling Green State University business professor and owner of the Cady Group, which has worked with the City of Toledo and Mercy College, among other organizations. He specializes in helping diverse groups of people work together to form lasting solutions, he said.
"It's a little challenging to help people collaborate. You can't just throw them in a room and expect them to work together," Mr. Cady said. "It's an emerging, cutting-edge discipline called 'whole system change.' The underlying concern is how to get people to come together and have it come to concrete results."
The original proposal called for an 18-month stint for $240,000 to shepherd the district through the public forum process and implementation of potential changes. The proposal was pared down to a three-month stint focusing on the forum and teaching various groups from inside and outside of TPS the best strategies for working together.
The idea comes from an education reform committee of Lucas County government, education, and business leaders, including Mr. Vasquez, Mayor Mike Bell, and University of Toledo President Lloyd Jacobs. Nonprofit, union, and business leaders also serve on the panel. The mayor is its chairman.
The group has been meeting in private sessions for months to discuss how to achieve what Mr. Vasquez calls "transformational change" for the financially ailing school district.
The TPS budget has been chronically in the red, and the district's last two levy requests failed by wide margins.
To close a $39 million budget hole for this school year, TPS cut bus service for about 5,000 students, eliminated some sports programs, increased class sizes, and laid off more than 400 employees.
After the cuts, enrollment for the current school year slipped by more than 5 percent as parents transferred children to charter schools, other districts, and to private schools that offer full bus service and full slates of sports.
Mr. Vasquez said the district can't afford to pay $72,000 for the forum and is hoping to find another way, such as through donations or a sponsorship. He said the same consultant worked with the mayor when the city held public hearings about budget priorities. "It was fresh in the mayor's mind," Mr. Vasquez said.
Mr. Vasquez said he hopes to gain support from other board members about holding a February summit.
But it's unclear if the full school board ever will unite behind a plan that's offered by an outside committee.
Board member Larry Sykes said that he and other board members have been excluded from the panel and its work and said no minutes have been kept that he can review. He said school leaders should be more focused on unifying behind their own reform plan.
"Until we as a board can gel, outside help can't help us," he said.
Mr. Sykes said the district pays an annual membership fee to a group called the Council of Great City Schools, which counts TPS and 65 other urban district as its members. The council's experts are on hand to help urban districts, like TPS, tackle and solve problems, he said.
Board member Brenda Hill said that Mr. Vasquez has been the the only member of the education reform committee because school board members are looking for outside advice from those not involved in the district's daily operations.
Also, she said if too many board members showed up, it would become a public meeting and would be subject to Ohio's Sunshine laws.
She said she supports the idea of a forum because people are creative and can come up with interesting ways of solving problems.
The school district welcomes creative input for solving the budget problems, she said, because unlike the city that can raise water rates, the school district can't generate income on its own.
The summit would be modeled after others held in various cities, with some drawing more than 1,000 school employees and residents to sit in small, diverse groups to offer and discuss ideas for reform.
A professional moderator runs the sessions and collects the information, such as ideas about how to better run cafeterias, transport students, teach certain subjects, or get more parents to volunteer.
Sometimes the summits are held over several days in convention halls or at fairgrounds because large crowds are expected.
The gold standard for this type of forum comes from Meade, Wash.
More than a decade ago, the school district there decided it needed a new set of goals as it moved into the new millennium.
So the Meade School District superintendent and its school unions worked together and organized a two-day summit that was open to anyone with a desire to comment. With professional moderators on hand, more than 1,300 school employees and residents hashed out ideas and opinions inside two buildings at the local fairgrounds.
That forum is remembered as a success, Mr. Cady said. But the discipline has advanced, and now some studies focus on how to make long-lasting change from the initial collaboration.
"Leadership has to step up because any kind of change is going to cause discomfort," Mr. Cady said. "People want to go back to what they are comfortable with, even if it's bad for them."
Contact Christopher D. Kirkpatrick