Save Our Schools
Illustrations by Michaela Schuett
City schools hit bottom last year after reporters uncovered a pattern of cheating on attendance records. Now voters are being asked to approve a $515 million plan officials say will make the district efficient and smart. The people inside the effort to reform Columbus schools talk about what went wrong and why they think they’ve found the solution.
Dan Good begins his speech with a list of numbers and letters: four F’s, three D’s, two C’s.
To the couple hundred attendees of the Columbus Metropolitan Club luncheon, a collection of civic and business leaders, politicians, parents and taxpayers, the phrase didn’t need explanation. These were the nine letter grades awarded to Columbus City Schools from the state two weeks earlier showing not enough students can pass state tests, too few are graduating and little progress has been made in making education equitable.
If the Ohio Department of Education had awarded district composite scores this year as it had in the past, Columbus schools would have slipped from a C to a D. A shift in the way schools are graded saved the district from falling this year—but that still didn’t soften the blow, district officials say.
It’s not an impossible situation to solve, the charismatic Good, who was tapped in July as the interim district superintendent, tells his audience—it is the reality. Columbus schools are failing their students.
The former head of the Westerville school district speaks gently, starting each sentence in a soft tone that crescendos as he gets to the meat of his point. His enthusiasm builds as he moves off-script to make the occasional light joke, leaving the room shaking with laughter.
Supporters give him a standing ovation when he finishes, while skeptics peppering the room clap politely from their seats. Regardless of the side they take, the audience is captivated. They want to know Good’s plan for encouraging efficacy in the classroom, for giving greater autonomy to principals, for sharing levy funding with charter schools, for helping students read better now.
The mood in this room in early September illustrates what school and city officials say is sparking the “new day” for Columbus schools. They say there has never before been such an active rally around the school district from the business and civic communities, namely in the form of a mayor-appointed commission that outlined dozens of steps to lift the district from its low ranks. City officials are also counting on this consensus to be the catalyst for real change in the classroom, if voters back it with a levy and a bond issue on the Nov. 5 ballot.
But it’s no longer a matter of finding the problem and proposing a fix. Wounds remain open from last year’s attendance data scandal as a criminal investigation continues. Trust between the district and its constituents must be repaired—an assurance that the district is properly spending its $1.3 billion budget and that any additional money will result in tangible change.
Mayor Michael B. Coleman says he was as guilty as the rest of the community in assuming the schools were the sole responsibility of district administration and the elected school board. But that’s like washing your hands of the problem, he says, brushing one hand over the other then holding up both palms like a magician showing there’s nothing up his sleeve. “It’s a benign neglect in a way,” he says. “We are trying to change the culture.”
If the time to act is now, what makes this plan the best plan for saving the city’s floundering school district?
“Sometimes it takes a crisis to bring people together,” says Coleman. “This is a community crisis. And it’s going to take a community to solve it. The way you impart long-term and sustainable change is that everybody has to be vested, everybody has to be together, everybody has to take a piece of the pie and make it work.”
How did we get here?
Two innocuous binders are stacked in the corner of the conference room at the Downtown office of KidsOhio, a nonpartisan nonprofit that studies education. They stand out only because they’ve been pulled away from the rest on the long counter, which is cluttered with similar three-ring binders.
Mark Real, the president and CEO of KidsOhio, intentionally keeps the two in the corner as a reminder that the fat white binders overtaking the rest of the counter could easily be placed on top of them—isolated reports from 1968 and 1997 that did no more than call out the flaws in Columbus City Schools. A stack of problems left to fester on a shelf.
“Those reports actually made very similar recommendations in many ways to what [the Columbus Education Commission] recommended: More authority and autonomy for schools, better technology in the schools, better working relationship between the central office [and school buildings]. They were pretty blunt,” Real says. “The problem was nobody was tasked with, ‘We need to follow up on this.’ ”
KidsOhio filled another set of binders with articles and studies to help teach the mayor-appointed Columbus Education Commission—movers and shakers from the business, nonprofit, civic, union and activist communities, who, for the most part, were newcomers to education politics—about school policies and reform.
In addition to tackling this and other reading material, the 25-member panel met eight times between January and April to discuss the future of education in Columbus. They heard local and national experts speak on virtually every aspect of education (including curriculum, health, poverty and school-building architecture), listened to community concerns and visited top-performing schools in and out of the district.
Coleman appointed the members of the commission after announcing in September 2012 that he would step in to aid the district. He was as shocked as the rest of the community, he says, when in June 2012, a Columbus Dispatch investigative report found evidence that poorly performing students had intentionally been withdrawn, then re-enrolled in schools in order to prevent their low test scores from dragging down the district’s report card rating. The process came to be known as “scrubbing,” and an inquiry quickly escalated from a possible misunderstanding about state policy to deliberate cheating.
Ohio Auditor Dave Yost stepped in to investigate and found potential wrongdoing in 50 of Columbus’ 117 schools. The FBI launched its own investigation. The final results of both are still pending, but Yost has said he is confident charges will be filed and people will go to jail.
It wouldn’t be the first time school officials have gone to prison for cheating the system (see “We Are Not Alone” sidebar).
Former Columbus superintendent Gene Harris has unequivocally denied knowledge of any wrongdoing and announced in September 2012 that she would retire from the district. But not before a series of conversations with Coleman, a close friend, in which she supported the mayor’s offer to step in and help the district.
These conversations, along with the attendance data scandal and pleas from residents, led Coleman to act. He wanted a fresh perspective from a community that was inspired to not just turn over a laundry list of the district’s issues, but to actually step in and help with a plan of attack. “I thought a takeover was a simplistic view of the world,” says Coleman, who admits that during his more than a decade in office, he had been asked by business leaders and barbershop customers alike to step in and help the city’s downward sliding school system.
Coleman turned to other districts taken over by their cities, such as Chicago and Cleveland, and was discouraged by the lack of progress he saw. “I’m not sure that’s the magic wand,” he says. “Because they didn’t have a plan; they didn’t have a systemic change. It wasn’t clear whether or not the community was engaged.”
What makes this commission different from those earlier attempts in 1997 and 1968 is that this time, there are steps in place to take action, not just point out flaws. “We have a road map now that’s never existed,” says Alex Fischer, president and CEO of Columbus Partnership and a member of the commission. It’s not enough to assign tasks and goals to the district for the administrators and school board to carry out, he says. The community must share the legwork. “That’s going to require us all to stay involved and stay engaged.”
Fischer adds those in the business community need to move to the front line and accept responsibility. Part of that commitment will be in the proposed creation of a public-private partnership that would work with the school district, city and business community to make sure the commission’s plan is being implemented.
Exactly what this partnership will do, how it will function, who will pay for it and what it will be called hasn’t yet been defined. There are a number of roles that could fall under its umbrella. For example, if the organization has a budget of $20 million—half funded by private entities, half by public dollars—it can use that money to pay for pre-kindergarten programs, Coleman says. Or it could help recruit top teachers and administrators, and compensate them well (though that expense would be assigned to the district).
“It will have the capacity to do good in education,” the mayor says.
One example of recent outside support comes from the Columbus Metropolitan Library, which has taken several steps to improve youth reading skills. The library now allows kids to get a library card without a parent and lets them check out three books at a time—without fines if they come back late. And the library is hiring a director of educational partnerships to work with schools.
On April 26 the education commission unanimously voted in favor of a 55-recommendation plan. The overarching themes are: ensuring all kids are kindergarten-ready, recruiting and retaining talent, improving technology and assuring there is a high-performing school (both public and charter) in every neighborhood.
From the outside, the members of this 25-person council, made up of “unnatural friends” as Coleman politely puts it, seemed unlikely to agree on a lunch spot, let alone a plan filled with polarizing education concepts, including public support for charter schools.
But, in the end, not one dissenter came forward against the plan that was then turned over to the school board and eventually a levy committee.
Commission members say their approval wasn’t a rubber stamp in favor of the mayor’s efforts. Real says a sense of maturing during the four months they convened led to their overwhelming support, along with the understanding that they were there for a common goal. Prejudices often were set aside, like assuming union chief Rhonda Johnson, president of the Columbus Education Association, would advocate only for the interests of teachers.
They soon found, Real continues, that assumption and others were wrong. For example, the CEA brought up the issue that 90 percent of their teachers were losing instruction time because their technology wasn’t working—in some cases taking more than 30 minutes just to boot up their computer. This sparked a discussion about how poorly working computers in the classroom can shorten instruction time and impact the teaching of a student, Real says, which kept everyone’s eye on the same ball.
School Board president and commission member Carol Perkins agrees. She tried to set aside feelings of guilt to focus on the end result, regardless of how the group would arrive at it. “It’s like baking,” Perkins says. “The kitchen is going to get messy, but you’ll end up with a beautiful cake.”
Of course there were disagreements, adds Johnson. But commission members knew they had written an all-or-nothing, big-picture plan. Remove one element, and this proverbial cake would fall flat.
“That’s why we had a unanimous vote,” she says.
It also seems the tone of city and education officials has changed. They’re no longer playing the “blame game,” as Coleman calls education politics. No more finger-pointing and faulting someone else for failing to educate Columbus’ children. “Forget about the old baggage,” Stephanie Hightower says. A former school board president, Hightower served on the school board from 1999 to 2006, a time period that includes initial allegations of data scrubbing. Now CEO and executive director of the Columbus Urban League, she also sat on the education commission. During her tenure on the school board, she recalls trying to motivate the business community to act, but with little result. The common assumption, she says, was that business leaders cared only about suburban schools. But as Columbus business continues to thrive and industries such as technology continue to grow, leaders are realizing they have a stake in what kids are learning.
Ninety-seven percent of the people who come to the Urban League for aid, especially in job training, are from Columbus City Schools, Hightower says. “And there are folks who don’t even know how to go online,” she adds. “It’s time to take the lessons learned and let the rest go. We can’t keep doing things the same way and expect different results. We have to say enough is enough. Will there be some bumps in the road? Absolutely. But we can’t keep doing things the same way.”
The Solution and How We Get There
Even without funding from the levy, changes in the district are evident. More than half of the people implicated in the initial scrubbing reports no longer work for Columbus schools, Good says. Where there was an absence of clear guidance, there is clarity now. And an internal whistleblower policy is in place for employees.
Most notable is the downsizing of the Columbus City Schools central office; 11 positions have been cut, and others that open through attrition or retirement are not being refilled. Some employees, like master teachers, were moved from the main office to individual school buildings where they were needed for extra curriculum support. “There are more hands on deck, more professionals, more expertise accessible on site,” Good says.
Shrinking the bureaucracy has helped shift the tone inside the buildings, says Johnson, the union president. “Last year, morale was at an all-time low,” she explains. “There was this culture of fear and intimidation from the central office. It had been going on for a while.”
The message from the central office was: Don’t make mistakes or try new things. Here’s the standard guide, do not deviate. Just do as you are told, Johnson says. And last year was the worst she’d ever seen it. But this year, she’s not hearing about fear and intimidation. There are still issues, she adds, but it’s calmer. “It’s almost as if a veil has been lifted, and there is optimism.”
Former Eastmoor High School principal Alesia Gillison, who was promoted to executive director over middle and high schools this year, feels it, too.
“I definitely have seen a change in tone,” she says. “One of my messages in our division meeting is, ‘It’s a new day.’ It needs to look different, it needs to feel different. My challenge to the administrators is what are you doing differently this year? How is it going to feel differently to the parents?”
It’s about establishing and then maintaining community involvement, making sure every citizen feels as though he or she has been heard, Good adds. He has an expectation that every inquiry to the district gets a response within 24 hours. Even if an answer isn’t immediately available, there will an acknowledgment that a concern or question was heard.
The ultimate goal, he says, is to create a sense of community—to not just focus on what’s on the report card.
“There’s no silver-bullet solution. No panacea,” he says. There was no single program that pulled Westerville City Schools from a B to an A+ district during his tenure as superintendent, he says, and there is no single solution that he can apply to Columbus to turn the district around.
What he does believe in is a strategic plan that focuses on achievable goals. That is something they had in Westerville, he says, and he believes they now have it in Columbus.
A big part of the solution in Westerville, he says, was having the right people with the right attitude in place. “People who say, ‘We can do this. I will do this.’ Not, ‘Woe is me.’ Those individuals helped to prove no matter your ZIP code or family background, you can be successful,” he says. “And we were successful.”
From Westerville, Good brought Machelle Kline, whose position as director of the office of performance and strategic initiatives was created in the reorganization in the central office. Kline will analyze data from the Ohio Department of Education and regular student assessments and help principals and teachers understand how these points can better guide and streamline instruction. In the past, data was used in a reactive manner to analyze a problem after something had already gone wrong. The new approach should identify gaps in curriculum before they result in students who are ill-prepared to move forward, Kline says.
“Data points provide opportunity,” she says, “but without focus they won’t have any impact.”
Kline can use the data to drill down to a single classroom and its student. For example, if students in fifth grade are testing behind in math, the data might find one teacher is teaching all of the fourth-graders in math. Chances are, she explains, it’s not the students’ fault they are lagging behind. Instead it could be what’s being taught and the way it’s presented. She can use this information to help that teacher refocus his or her lesson plan or learn from other teachers who are having success.
Downsizing the bureaucracy is a step in the right direction, says Ethan Gray, executive director of the CEE Trust, an organization that helps cities create an “ecosystem” that supports high-performing schools.
“The districts we work with have struggled with a very large central office bureaucracy that sucks up an enormous amount of money,” Gray says. The solution is making schools more autonomous. “We’re a big proponent of that.”
For example, the CEE Trust has been working with the Indianapolis City School District on a plan that calls for radically downsizing the central office and reallocating the resources to schools. “In exchange for more accountability, schools would see a per-pupil allocation from $7,000 to $12,000.” It could also open the door for outstanding teachers to make six figures a year.
To put these ideas into action, the Columbus City Schools will turn to voters Nov. 5, asking them to approve a 9.01-mill property-tax levy and bond issue that would pay for new computers and Wi-Fi access in every school, build and renovate buildings and help fund preschool programs in every neighborhood. It would also partly fund the yet-to-be-defined public-private partnership. The levy specifies the partnership will help increase enrollment at public and charter schools, recruit and retain good teachers and ensure that all schools within city limits are high-performing—meaning they will not only earn top marks from the state, but also prepare graduates to go to college, get a job, start a business or join the military.
Voting in favor of Issue 51 will pay for these initiatives. In turn, the district has promised to find a way to reduce the budget by $200 million in the next five years and it won’t ask residents for more money again before 2018.
If passed, the separate Issue 50 will create an auditor independent of the Board of Education with power to investigate operations within the district. This position will be paid by the district, but appointed by the school board president, a county judge and three city officials.
The overall request is a 23 percent increase in property taxes, adding $315 a year for a $100,000 home—an increase that will start in January if Issues 50 and 51 are approved. That will be tacked on to the $1,338 the homeowner currently pays the district.
For the mayor’s part, he has agreed to appoint a director of educational improvement, who will sit on his cabinet. And after a state law change this year, Coleman now has the power to sponsor charter schools. This means only high-performing charters will be given the “Good Housekeeping stamp of approval” from his office, he says—and only the schools with this thumbs-up will qualify for levy money, so good money isn’t thrown into bad charters. But the fact that charter schools are getting any money at all has been a contentious part of the proposal.
School board member Mike Wiles was the lone dissenter when the school board voted to place the levy on the November ballot. He preferred to give voters a chance to vote on individual initiatives instead of one big package. “That way they can have more control over where the money is spent,” Wiles says.
He supports the education commission’s work, but he opposes sharing levy money with charter schools. He’s also against hiring an independent auditor and creating the public-private partnership without any details about who they are and exactly what either entity will do.
“There’s a whole gamut of ‘what ifs’ out there. This isn’t the arena that we play in—the ‘Trust me with $515 million of your money and a 23 percent tax increase,’ ” he says. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy they are involved. The board hasn’t done their job.” The board has been too willing to depend on single-sourced information from the district, he says.
“The administration runs the district and the board goes, ‘Yes.’ That’s not how you have oversight,” Wiles says. Wiles says he hasn’t found many of his constituents who support the levy.
Columbus voters have a long history of approving school levies. It’s the only major city in Ohio where every school ballot initiative has been approved since 1991, says Real of KidsOhio. “I think Columbus people really value education. But they are very discerning. You have to go out and make the case. People are trying to understand, is this in fact a new day? Or is it more of the same?”
Outside of Columbus, the education community has been watching with interest to see what happens, Gray says. “Your community has a lot of reason to be proud of the conversation fostered so far. On the other hand, the results aren’t in yet. We will watch with interest to see how all of this develops.”
Widespread Cheating: We Are Not Alone
Cheating in a public school district isn’t a new issue. Fudging test score data and attendance numbers to make a district appear as though it’s meeting state expectations is something districts around the country have seen in a variety of ways.
In April, an internal audit of the Washington, D.C., district found evidence of cheating in 11 schools—seven public and four charter. These findings were released the same day school officials admitted they knew about the possibility of widespread cheating in 2009, with nearly 200 teachers at 70 schools allegedly erasing wrong answers on standardized tests and filling in correct ones.
Former El Paso, Texas, superintendent Lorenzo Garcia was the nation’s first superintendent to be convicted of fraud and reporting bogus test scores to the state (he also collected more than $50,000 in bonuses because of the perceived district improvements). He was arrested in August 2011, accused of purposefully not testing the poorest performing sophomores at a district high school, changing failing grades to passing and forcing struggling students to drop out of school. Charges against other school officials are pending.
And in Atlanta, an investigation spearheaded by the Atlanta-Journal Constitution uncovered what’s been called one of the nation’s largest cheating scandals—rigging test scores in more than half of the schools in the district of 50,000 students, possibly dating as far back as 2001. While the trial is ongoing, 35 educators and administrators, including the superintendent, have been charged with racketeering and corruption.
It’s the cheating scandal in Atlanta that those in the education community outside of Columbus have most closely aligned with what’s happening here, says Ethan Gray, executive director of the CEE Trust, an organization that helps cities create an ecosystem that supports high-performing schools. “The good news is Columbus has done a wonderful job of facing it head on,” Gray says. “Everything I’ve read has been admirable.”
But he expresses a sense of caution along with hope because, while there is a plan, the results are not in yet. “You’re in some uncharted territory,” he says.
Gray’s advice for Columbus school administrators is not to be lulled into a false sense of hope that with the right person hired or the right curriculum put in place all will magically get better. Instead, the question to be asking is: How can learning be individualized for each kid? And that’s not a question for the central office to ask or answer, he adds. “My hope is that conversation is going to be fostered at the individual school level. What you don’t want to be happening is a bureaucrat telling an educator what to do,” he says. “You want educators to be empowered.”
But there’s no denying there’s been loss of trust between the district and the community—it’s a common problem facing many urban districts, Gray says.
So how do you reestablish the community’s faith in the district? Communicate, says Atlanta school board member Cecily Harsch-Kinnane. Her advice for Columbus officials is to hold meetings, respond to every concern and be transparent in their answers. Through the cheating scandal and her district’s recent loss of accreditation (a result of board infighting, Harsch-Kinnane says), the board held one to four open meetings a week to keep the community informed about what was being done.
“A tremendous amount of work was done to try and gain back people’s trust,” she says.
And be thorough, she continues, making sure to overturn every stone and address concerns immediately. Once you’ve addressed the problems, she says, “then you can start the healing.”
Breaking down the levy
The Nov. 5 ballot will offer Columbus voters the option of approving two ballot issues: Issues 50 and 51. The former asks permission to create an independent auditor position in the district. The latter focuses on academic achievement and innovation, funding the recommended improvements laid out by the mayor’s education commission. The 9.01 mill bond-levy package would provide the district with $515 million over five years. In return, the district has promised not to ask for any additional dollars via a levy until 2018 and to reduce the district’s spending by $200 million during that time. Here’s where the money is slated to go over five years:
1 mill* ($42.5 million) would be used to establish pre-kindergarten programs at no cost to parents for 4,800 students.
0.8 mills ($33 million) would go toward increasing technology, including providing a computer for every child in high and middle school and one computer for every four children in elementary schools and updating classroom technology.
1 mill ($42.5 million) would be dedicated to increasing enrollment at high-performing city schools and replicating successful techniques at those deemed not high-performing.
1 mill ($42.5 million) would dedicate similar resources but at the community (aka charter) school level to ensure these nonprofit schools are high-performing.
1 mill ($42.5 million) would help fund a public-private partnership designed to act as an advocate for education. The money would be spent on the partnership’s recommended actions. One example of a possible initiative: the attraction, retention and training of high-quality teachers and principals.
0.1 mill (estimated $5 million) would fund the independent auditor position designed to maintain checks and balances within the district.
3.1 mills ($132 million) would be reserved for improved district operations. That includes creating better business and academic operations, ensuring all kids can attend an A or B school and using school buildings as community centers.
4.7 mills (no
dollar value, but no reduction in property taxation) would dedicate resources of the Financial Review Standing Committee (a Board of Education committee) to reduce the district’s budget by $200 million over the next five years.
1.01 mills (bond issue worth $175 million) would be put toward facility improvements, such as 10 new construction, renovation and maintenance projects, providing Wi-Fi access to all school buildings and improving access to technology during this transition.
*Millage or mill is a term used to describe the property tax rate in tenths of a cent applied to the value of a home. In this instance, a levy value of 9.01 mills will cost the owner of a $100,000 home an additional $315 a year in taxes.