A Message of Hope from Byrd Bennett
If you don't know from first hand experience, try to imagine what it was like to attend a Cleveland school 1998. Each day, on average 20,000 of your peers just wouldn't show up for class. If you graduated you were one of the lucky 28% who managed it. In 9th grade you'd lose thousands of classmates who'd just drop out. Also around that time the district was in both academic and fiscal emergency.
That's how Barbara Byrd Bennett described her first year as district CEO, during her state of the schools address at the City Club of Cleveland. She then compared it to the current year, and she said the results were undeniable.
Barbara Byrd Bennett: Reading scores have increased by more than 30 percentage points, the districts test scores have shown year to year improvement in all academic targets, daily attendance increased. From 80 points to 95 percent - last year only 520 9th grade drop outs.
The district is no longer in academic emergency, and the graduation rate has increased to just over 50%. But Byrd Bennett told the crowd she that the gains could soon disintegrate, because of a lack of funding. Last year the district was forced to reduce the budget by $100 million, and this year, millions more will have to be cut. Byrd Bennett called this past year the most difficult of her career.
Barbara Byrd Bennett: You do the math. $37 million... a total reduction to our budget of $157 in 2 years. Jobs have been lost, programs have been cut, and sadly more jobs will be cut. Who suffers? Our children. They are the victims of this nightmare.
The CEO told the community they can't wait for Columbus to fix the schools and made it clear that the district must go back to voters this year to request additional funding. But speaking on 90.3 after her address, Byrd-Bennett placed blame for school shortfalls squarely on the state's school funding system. Here she's responding to a caller facing retirement, a fixed income, and, in all likelihood, another Cleveland school levy.
Barbara Byrd Bennett: We should not have to depend upon our seniors and other residents to continually come back and ask for an increase on property tax. Many states have figured out how to fund public schools without fundamentally doing and overtax burden to the residents.
Byrd Bennett knows the levy could be a tough sell, but not if the message is clear: she believes it's really a question of whether voters still believe in Cleveland children, and what are they willing to do to help them succeed. In Cleveland, Janet Babin, 90.3.