New TPS board leader puts levy atop agenda


The Toledo Board of Education selected new leaders Thursday, and the board's new president immediately called for a new levy campaign.

Brenda Hill was voted board president, and Cecelia Adams was voted vice president. Both women were approved for their posts unanimously by the board. Lisa Sobecki had served as board president, and Ms. Hill was vice president last year.

The new leadership will face several major tasks in Toledo Public Schools this year, including negotiations with the district's labor unions, the completion of a performance audit, the possible selection of a new superintendent, and what appears to be another levy campaign.

Ms. Hill said a priority of hers will be the passage of a levy this year. The district had a new 4.9-mill, 10-year levy on the November ballot that would have generated $13.3 million annually, but voters rejected the new property tax by a 52.45 percent to 47.55 percent margin. It was the latest in a string of failures for TPS levies.

Ms. Hill said she doesn't expect the district to make major changes to operations this year to entice voter support. Instead, she said the key to a levy victory will be community involvement in the campaign and garnering support from skeptics by showcasing changes made in the district in recent years. Many people don't know all the programs TPS offers or the changes that were made, Ms. Hill said.

"We should have had community people involved from the beginning," she said of the last campaign.

Outside of family and friends for Ms. Hill and Ms. Adams, Thursday's meeting was sparsely attended by the public, even for typical board of education standards. But Ms. Hill's call for a levy drew immediate skepticism from Steven Flagg, a public school advocate and frequent TPS critic who was one of the few in the audience.

The district's declining enrollment leaves room for more cuts, he said, and expenditures should be looked at before a levy.

"They really need to be looking at their cost structures," Mr. Flagg said.

Ms. Hill said her other priorities for her one-year term as board president will be increasing high school graduation rates and improving employee morale. The latter may become tied to looming negotiations this spring with the district's three unions.

District negotiators won significant concessions from unions two years ago. Mr. Flagg questioned whether the current board leadership, which includes a former TPS teacher in Ms. Hill and former teacher and administrator in Ms. Adams, would push for the same kind of tough negotiating position as the board did during the last round.

Ms. Hill said that board members don't participate in negotiations, and will leave talks with unions up to the administrative team. The board two years ago hired Cleveland attorney Craig Brown to head negotiations, and Mr. Brown became a lighting rod for criticism. Ms. Sobecki even withdrew support for him in the midst of negotiations. Ms. Hill said Thursday the board will have to decide if it wants to again hire an outside negotiator to lead contract talks.

But she pointed out that the district has already asked for teachers to give up pay, and said that "you reach a point where you can't ask for more."

When asked if the district had reached that point, she said she didn't know, but said that teacher pay does impact employee morale, and cuts to pay could cause staff to leave the district.

"We can't afford to lose anymore staff," Ms. Hill said.

Maybe first on the board's agenda this year is the question of who will lead TPS. Superintendent Jerome Pecko's three-year contract ends this summer. Ms. Hill said board members will begin discussing this month about whether they should extend Mr. Pecko's contract, or search for a replacement.

In a piece of apparent history, board member Larry Sykes said he believed the selection of Ms. Hill and Ms. Adams as board president and vice president was the first time women have filled both of the board's top leadership positions.