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Published: Tuesday, 10/26/2010

More TPS challenges

Even if voters approve the tax increase Toledo Public Schools seeks on Tuesday's ballot — and that's a huge if — the district still will face an intimidating array of issues that affect both the revenue it expects to receive and how it plans to spend that money.

The Blade continues to support, with misgivings, the permanent property tax levy TPS wants. But voters who are prepared to entrust the school system with more of their tax dollars will need to remain vigilant about the use of those dollars. Experience suggests that such oversight can't be left to TPS or its internal interest groups.

The U.S. Department of Education acknowledged this week it is conducting a civil-rights investigation of how the district assigns resources to minority students. The department adds it has not identified any violations.

Some African-American parents assert that TPS discriminates illegally against black students in providing access to college-preparatory, advanced-placement, and honors classes, and other career-development programs. District officials deny such bias, claiming they base course offerings on student demand.

Who gets what is a basic question for any government institution. An objective third-party review probably is needed to resolve the incendiary issues raised by this dispute. It would be useful to get the results of that review as soon as the Education Department can reasonably provide them.

The district's critics observe that many parents already have voted with their feet, leaving TPS for charter or private schools and taking their children's state aid with them. TPS lost more than 5 percent of its enrollment in the past year alone — a striking vote of no-confidence in the district.

In addition to the revenue it is losing to charter schools and voucher programs, TPS likely faces further cuts in state aid no matter who is elected governor next week. The state faces a projected $8 billion shortfall in the next two-year budget, an amount equivalent to about one-sixth of its current general fund.

At the same time, much of the special federal aid the district has relied on to maintain services, preserve employment, and pay for enrichment programs will go away after the next school year. So TPS will need to become more effective both at how it makes budget forecasts and at how it invests available resources to promote classroom quality.

TPS Superintendent Jerome Pecko told The Blade's editorial board that the district is developing a program that would financially reward teachers for student improvement at the district's most academically challenged schools. That's proper; teachers deserve to be paid well for the good work they do, especially under tough circumstances.

But there needs to be equal emphasis on getting bad teachers out of classrooms, once it's clear that remediation efforts have failed. It's also not only appropriate but necessary to tie decisions about teacher tenure and evaluation to objective measures of student performance.

The district's unions need to be an integral part of these discussions, and the actions that proceed from them. But “the contract won't let us” is no longer a tolerable excuse for inaction.

A TPS plan to hold a community forum to solicit feedback from parents and taxpayers about district operations is a good first step. But the school system's problems won't be resolved in a few days of discussions, however well structured. That will require an elevated, sustained level of public scrutiny — whatever happens at the polls on Tuesday.

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