Tax Levy May Hold Cleveland Schools' Future

Bill Rice- Every so often Cleveland Municipal School District CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett holds what she calls a "conversation with the CEO", with parents at one of the local schools. During such a session last week, Byrd-Bennett took the opportunity to talk up the urgency of passing the tax levy. Among the key selling points -- the state match. For every forty cents the city raises, the state kicks in sixty.

Barbara Byrd-Bennett- I don't know about you all, but I'd love to go somewhere where I put in 40 cents and I went ching-a-ling-a-ling and a dollar came out. I'd love to go to the corner store and say here's my forty cents and somebody just keeps giving me a dollar back. I'd bring a whole lot of forty cents-es there. So its a unique opportunity for us to get a lump sum of money to do what we need to do for our buildings.

BR- But it will take more than just these school appearances, with a relatively small number of parents attending, to sell the school levy to the Cleveland populace. District officials say they need to reach a much wider audience, and they're using one of their most plentiful assets as messenger: school kids. The first of them were enlisted last week.

Kenya Scott- You guys have a lot of power and a lot of say so in the bond issue. And that's kind of why we're here today. I don't think a lot of you understand how much power you have.

BR- Kenya Scott of the NAACP National Voter Fund instructs a group of student leaders chosen for a special training session on the levy proposal. It's a joint project of the school district and the Cleveland Teachers Union. 35 kids from several city schools are taught the "hows" and "whys" of getting the measure passed. Tenise Beavers is a senior at James Ford Rhodes High School. She describes the Rhodes building as sub-standard -- missing or broken ceiling tiles, bathroom stalls with no doors and no toilet tissue, rooms with no heat -- or too much heat. To her the "why" is obvious.

Tenise Beavers- It's very important because if the schools are already falling apart, can you imagine how they're going to be two or three years from now? My brother will go through the Cleveland Public Schools. They're going be completely apart, and nobody's going want to be there. If you make it enjoyable, if you make the environment enjoyable as far as education, more and more people are going to want to be there.

BR- But the tax levy is something Tenise is only now learning about.

TB- I didn't even know we had a bond issue going on. I learned that our school wasn't the only school suffering because of facility problems. That I can vote, I'll be 18 May 2nd, and will be able to vote on the bond issue. I can register now. I didn't know that.

BR- That's exactly the message administrators and teachers hope Tenise and others attending will take back to their schoolmates, and their parents. Meryl Johnson is 1st Vice President of the Cleveland Teachers union, which developed and organized the day-long session.

Meryl Johnson- The advantage these students have, is they are in these buildings and they are the ones being hit in the head with falling tiles, and like one student said, have snow fights. So they can give their own tragic stories about the effect these terrible conditions are having, not only on them personally, but on their learning. So they are going to be the ambassadors to go out and sell this bond issue to the community.

BR- Johnson says the kids will take the information they gather here back to their respective schools, spread it among their peers, and organize voter registration drives to sign up those who will be 18 on election day. She says the session aims to prepare them not just to converse with other students, but also parents and other community members, some of whom see more than just the condition of schools. Sheryl Dubose's two children graduated from Cleveland Schools. Dubose is concerned about a repeat of past problems where money raised for schools wasn't properly managed. And, she says, under the current levy proposal, homeowners carry too much of the burden.

Sheryl Dubose- I really think they should take some of these tax abatements and these tiffs that these big businesses downtown that's not paying their taxes, and they're just living off -- pimping off -- the backs of the homeowners. That's not fair, and that's exactly what it is.

BR- But Dubose says, she's grudgingly supportive of the measure.

SD- I hate that they keep putting the squeeze on the homeowners. But the kids need the money. So you're between a rock and a hard place.

BR- School officials insist they will be held accountable for how the money is spent, and that, despite some already existing tax abatements, Cleveland businesses would contribute substantially to the school improvement effort. They say student education is a first step in the campaign to win support for the bond issue, and that they're putting the finishing touches on a broader strategy to be rolled out in the coming weeks. Bill Rice, 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.

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