Just minutes after Brenda Hill was sworn in Thursday as president of the board, she listed passage of a levy this year as a top priority. 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 it by a 52.45 percent to 47.55 percent margin. The defeat was the latest in a string of failures for TPS levies.
After a Thursday board meeting, Ms. Hill appeared to lay the blame for the levy failure on how the campaign was run and the failure of TPS to inform the community of what the district has to offer, rather than on entrenched frustration with the district, loss of family ties to TPS because of the growth in charter schools, aversion to tax increases among voters, or a belief that more funds for the district would be futile.
An example of the poor campaign, Ms. Hill said, was what she believes was a dearth of yard signs supporting the levy.
She 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.
Ms. Hill was voted board president, and Cecelia Adams was voted vice president at the organizational meeting. Both women were approved for their posts unanimously.
Lisa Sobecki was board president last year, and Ms. Hill was vice president.
A levy campaign would add to the major tasks for the board this year. Negotiations with TPS labor unions are to begin in the spring, a comprehensive performance audit is under way, and the board is to decide soon whether to appoint a new superintendent.
Perhaps first on the 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 whether they should extend Mr. Pecko’s contract or search for a replacement.
Besides family and friends of Ms. Hill and Ms. Adams, Thursday’s meeting was sparsely attended by the public, even by 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 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 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 lawyer 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 affect employee morale, and pay cuts could cause staff to leave the district.
“We can’t afford to lose any more staff,” Ms. Hill said.
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 meant that for the first time, women have filled both of the board’s top leadership positions.
Contact Nolan Rosenkrans at: email@example.com or 419-724-6086.