Toledo Mayor Mike Bell, flanked by business and education leaders, recently promised the public a real say in how Toledo Public Schools is run.
Mayor Bell and school board President Bob Vasquez announced a coming public education forum where anyone can give his or her opinion about the school district, suffering from persistent budget deficits and a public image problem.
Will it be a pure community brain-storming exercise, or was the announcement on Oct. 7 designed to curry favor with voters ahead of a key school levy vote next month?
There's no official date for the summit with the public and few details about how local leaders hope to pull it off.
The mayor and other local leaders say the forum might not even happen until after the Nov. 2 levy vote. And they direct the cynical to Meade, Wash., about 2,000 miles west.
More than a decade ago, the West Coast school district wanted a new vision and set of goals going into the next millennium.
So the Meade School District superintendent and school unions, together, organized a two-day summit open to anyone with a desire to weigh in.
With a professional moderator, more than 1,300 school employees and residents spent two days hashing out ideas and opinions inside two buildings at the local fairgrounds.
"We literally had a well-diversified group that represented the entire Meade community," remembered Kelly Shea, a first-year principal back then who is now the executive director of human resources for the school district. "How do you truly get at what the community wants? We were just trying to give ourselves direction."
The result was a set of "guiding principles" that still hangs on special laminated posters in school district hallways and is published on the district's Web site.
Mr. Shea said the principles have been useful and the process to create them energized employees, parents, and taxpayers.
The general ideas provided the basis for new programs that helped students, families, and school employees succeed. It also prompted an era of cooperation among teachers, one of the goals that came out of the summit, Mr. Shea said.
Inside the fairground buildings, participants were split into groups of about 10 with the rule that each table should represent more than just one interest, meaning there should be more than just school employees or residents in each group.
They discussed ideas for how the school system should change and wrote them on large sheets of paper hung on the walls around the buildings. The participants took colored sticky dots, about 20 per person, and voted for the ideas they liked best.
The moderator later distilled the most popular into three sets of guiding principles, such as "increasing the connections [among] parents, business, community and our schools." There also were subcategories, such as "follow through on decisions that are made."
The principles and sub-categories provide some clear, general themes that eventually spawned specific initiatives, Mr. Shea remembered. After the summit, the district created a program to coordinate parent volunteers, instead of just in wealthier neighborhood schools where more stay-at-home parents were willing to volunteer.
"For me, personally, it was incredible to have that many people and that energy," Mr. Shea said of the summit. "The question then becomes, how do you keep that torch lit?"
Toledo Public Schools needs more than a set of guiding principles as it faces down another deficit next school year projected at $44 million.
It needs to balance its budget for more than a few months at a time, TPS officials and critics alike say.
And it needs new and cost-effective ways to deliver education and other services.
Mr. Vasquez says the district needs "transformational change," his and the school board's new buzz phrase.
Key groups in the community have called for blue-ribbon commissions or special panels to assess the district's problems.
To restore public confidence, Mr. Vasquez announced a new panel that includes Mayor Bell, business leaders, union leaders, and University of Toledo President Lloyd Jacobs, among others, to look at TPS operations.
The panel met quietly for several months and came up with the idea to put on a public forum such as the one the Meade School District did 11 years ago.
"We need partnerships with a lot of different community leaders to help out the school system," the mayor said in his office on Oct. 7.
"The school system is the biggest economic engine in the community."
With the panel and forum idea, local Toledo leaders are trying to reverse public perception of a school district fiscally adrift.
Toledo school officials say it's not their doing. Recent declines in enrollment and state budget cuts have conspired to force layoffs and budget cuts, and it's not an issue of poor management, they say.
Denny Johnson, owner and president of Brooks Insurance, and others stood with the mayor when he announced the forum idea.
"TPS has challenges. Everybody has challenges," he said after the meeting. "They have resource constraints. … And the issue becomes, how do you right-size the district, and are all the resources being used correctly? I ask that same question in my own business."
Clint Longenecker, a UT professor, said the method used by Meade School District can be extremely valuable if conducted the right way.
It's considered a "structured form of brainstorming" and is used by corporations and groups to create positive change, said Mr. Longenecker, the Stranahan professor of leadership and organizational excellence with the UT college of business and innovation.
For TPS, Mr. Longenecker said, holding the forum would have two main goals: To let the public know TPS is interested in its opinion, and to search for fresh ideas.
"TPS is listening - that is very powerful message," he said. "And a couple of people may come up with some great ideas, some real rainmakers."
To be successful, he said, a skilled moderator or "facilitator" must be employed, as well as clear rules to prevent any one person or group from dominating the conversation.
"The idea is to let ideas spawn additional ideas," he said.
"The problem with traditional town-hall meetings is that the people in the audience might not be representative of the population involved [in the issues]."
Mr. Longenecker, who has been at UT for 26 years, and his colleagues have studied how organizations can best make positive change.
They change most effectively when there is strong leadership and a sense of urgency, he said.
"At the end of the day, successful change is run like a two-minute drill in football, with a strong quarterback and a game plan," Mr. Longenecker said.
Holding the public forum is a way to refine the game plan, he said.
School leaders also should hold an additional forum, internally, just for employees and then lay the two sets of ideas next to each other, Mr. Longenecker said. That way, common goals inside and outside the district become evident, increasing the chance for success, he said.
"In some cases, the systems that have been created to not do anything are so strong that it drowns out and crushes internal ideas for change," he said. "That has a demoralizing effect."
Contact Christopher D.