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Published: Saturday, 5/6/2006

TPS board president can make humble move

BY PETER SILVERMAN

BEFORE last November's election, the Toledo School Board had consensus on a clear set of values and goals.

We supported strong discipline, required uniforms, raised standards, focused laser-like on reading in elementary school, and put tutoring programs in all our schools.

We had two college preparatory academies, a technology high school, four specialty charter schools, and an all-boys and all-girls school. We were collaborative, yet firm, and not confrontational.

The system's test scores rose steadily and we were the leading urban district in the state. And we carried out all these changes while, in many years, we were forced to balance the budget by closing schools, eliminating hundreds of jobs, and ending scores of programs.

We still faced many challenges. We were losing thousands of kids to charter schools, school financing forced us to constantly look to levies, and we needed to continue improving our test scores. But we were deeply engaged in the effort, trying new approaches, analyzing what works and what doesn't, and constantly trying to improve.

And while we may not have been dearly beloved in our hometown, we were admired throughout the nation. That's why a number of the largest districts in the nation tried to recruit Eugene Sanders.

Darlene Fisher, the board's current president, campaigned for office as part of "Three for Change," though I never understood what exactly she wanted to change. Mayor Carty Finkbeiner and the chamber of commerce supported her, and she won handily over other candidates who campaigned on staying the course. The veteran board members who remained, Larry Sykes and Deborah Barnett, felt the voters had spoken. They voted to elect Ms. Fisher president of the board.

She has been president for four months, and things haven't gone well. In January, the board should have begun looking for a new superintendent and considering a levy, but it is just starting on these matters now.

The press regularly reports on cat and dog fights among board members. The board even split its vote on the weighty issue of which recruiting firm to hire for the superintendent search.

Ms. Fisher voted against closing schools to balance the budget, but she offered no alternative. That will not earn her a chapter in the next edition of Profiles in Courage. And I still have no idea what it is that she wants to change.

With the enormity of the problems that the board faces, and the disarray among the board members, I fear that Toledo Public Schools may be headed for a Humpty Dumpty fall. So I offer Ms. Fisher and the board some advice.

First, decide one way or the other on the levy. Now! The odds are heavily against winning this November.

It's quite late to begin a campaign, and the board's divisiveness, even if it ends now, will make it difficult to inspire public confidence.

Don't even consider putting on a levy unless each board member supports it. Look hard at what cuts will need to be made if a levy passes this year or if the board waits until November, 2007. Then make the decision.

Second, the board is drafting a description of the qualities it's looking for in a new superintendent. These types of descriptions often end up aiming so high that even the Messiah himself would fall short.

Avoid that type of meaningless exercise. Focus on the basic values and goals you'd like the superintendent to support, and look for a leader who has demonstrated a commitment to those values and goals.

I'd recommend continuing the ones the past board set: high standards, a focus on test scores, strict discipline, collaborative leadership that's firm but not confrontational, and a commitment to improve what works, abandon what doesn't, and take risks to remake the system.

I'd also add experience to the list. I expect that at the end of this school year a number (and maybe even the majority) of TPS' top leaders will depart based on a grave lack of confidence in the new board.

Now is not the time to bring in a non-traditional candidate who will need to learn on the job. TPS will need someone with experience who can assemble a new leadership team and set direction immediately.

Third, and finally, if the board is constantly feuding, it stands no chance of hiring a decent superintendent. It will instead be relegated to choosing among only those candidates who are desperate enough to put up with reporting to a split, feuding, indecisive, dysfunctional board.

The good news is that Ms. Fisher has the power to change this. It will, however, take a rare combination of courage and humility.

Here's the public statement she could make:

"Since becoming president four months ago, I've realized that I need to learn a great deal and that we all need to get along better if we want Toledo Public Schools to thrive. And I've realized that nothing is more important than coming together as a board to hire the best superintendent we can find. I still have strong beliefs that the system needs to change, but I've realized that I can serve the board better by advocating for these changes as a member rather than as its president. So I resign as president."

Given that two of the other board members are new and that Mr. Sykes has been the Hatfield to Ms. Fisher's McCoy, the next president should be Ms. Barnett. She has experience on the board, and is a banker and prominent in the community. She has rock-solid convictions and nerves of steel. And, though she is a woman of few words, I think the public is ready for less talk, more action.

Ms. Fisher can then continue to advocate for the principles she believes in and vote her conscience. But she should be specific and positive. There's an endless line of critics ready to tear down the system, but the line of builders is a short one.

Don't let Humpty Dumpty have a great fall.

Peter Silverman is a Toledo attorney, a former member and president of the Toledo Board of Education, and a former Toledo city councilman.



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