After a derailed search and a public investigation, Columbus City Schools finally found a new leader. Now, all the district wants from incoming superintendent Talisa Dixon is to polish its tarnished image, improve its failing grade and ward off a state takeover.
For all the scrutiny and hand-wringing, almost no one showed up for the final announcement. In the early evening hours of Sept. 20, a few members of the media, a sign language interpreter and Lois Carson—vice president of the local union for school secretaries—gathered in the lower-level assembly room of the Columbus City Schools' central office. This was the small crowd that arrived to find out the board of education's choice for the next superintendent.
The announcement wouldn't normally happen like this. There would be a big press conference, and most people would know the pick in advance—it would be an unveiling. But this search process has been investigated, scrapped, restarted and dragged out for more than a year. Instead, the school board proclaimed its choice in a basement with little fanfare.
After nearly four hours of deliberation, board members filed into the assembly room, looking like a weight had been lifted. President Gary Baker read a resolution to offer the job to Talisa Dixon, a former Columbus principal and the current superintendent of Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District.
After adjourning, board members and their colleagues offered hugs, handshakes and words of gratitude. It had been an arduous process, an odyssey that further battered the district's oft-maligned image, which took another blow a week earlier when the Ohio Department of Education's annual report card delivered an F grade to Columbus. The hiring process would still drag on, though, for two more months before Dixon would sign a contract saying that she would begin full time in March, not January, as the board had previously announced. And, within three months, two school board members would resign.
The clock is ticking. Columbus City School district faces a potential state takeover related to its F rating within a couple of years. This is the job that Dixon says she feels destined to take.
It's hard to make a case for why anyone would want to be a school superintendent, especially for a large, urban district. It requires the managerial skill of a corporate CEO combined with the political prowess of a member of Congress, and the ability to serve an inordinate number of stakeholders: students, parents, teachers, central office staff, business leaders, chambers of commerce, universities, athletic boosters, religious leaders, state legislatures, unions and every taxpayer in the city. The Columbus school district employs more people than most large, local companies. Its 2019 fiscal year budget of $1.4 billion is larger than the general funds of the city and the county combined.
“It's really the kind of job that you have to be ‘on' almost all the time,” says Damon Asbury, the former interim superintendent of Columbus and former superintendent of Worthington public schools. “There's very little downtime.”
Cheryl Ryan, director of board and management services for the Ohio School Boards Association, says nationwide competition for superintendents is very stiff because there aren't vast numbers of school administrators with adequate experience. Asbury, who retired from the OSBA in 2017, adds that successful leaders are often lured away by bigger districts, better jobs or retirement.
The Columbus search began when previous superintendent Dan Good announced his pending retirement in August 2017, and deputy superintendent John Stanford stepped up to take the interim title. By February, Stanford was the only candidate left standing and appeared poised to get the job. Then state Auditor David Yost warned school board members that their search was potentially in violation of Ohio's Open Meetings Act and, if so, the results would be voided and they'd be held financially responsible.
Yost was alerted to the trouble in early 2018 when The Columbus Dispatch reporter Bill Bush published a string of stories questioning how the board had avoided required public votes on decisions like trimming its list of applicants. Yost and his staff debated whether to intervene because they'd never acted on a similar case before. They worried it would open the door to a surge of calls about every potential open-meeting law violation, which they didn't have the resources to handle. “But ultimately,” says Yost, “we felt that this was more of a one-off because it was so public and so egregious.”
The subsequent investigation by his office concluded that the board had illegally made decisions in private. Yost based his determination in part on interviews with board members Eric Brown, Mary Jo Hudson and Dominic Paretti, all of whom had opposed Stanford's bid. Yost's investigation also confirmed that the first search included four secret candidates. One of the board's favorites was Talisa Dixon, but she dropped out before the public knew she was involved.***
Almost a decade removed from her first stint in Columbus, Dixon's local supporters are still effusive. She has a reputation as an energetic and collaborative problem-solver, a good listener and a hard worker who sets high standards for herself and everyone else. From 2001 to 2008, she was the assistant principal and then principal of the now-defunct Brookhaven High School.
Lorraine Levels, a former Brookhaven student, remembers Dixon as having a no-nonsense personality, someone who was quick to correct students. She commanded respect, Levels says, down to the “authoritative click” of her heels as she walked the hallways. “She demanded a sense of excellence from us, but it was a warm demanding sense. It's like you felt like she cared about you.”
Levels' family didn't own a car, and when she won a selective college scholarship for which Dixon had pushed her to apply, Dixon and fellow administrator Alesia Gillison offered to move her to Spelman College in Atlanta. It was a strong offer, Levels recalls. “We're going to take you here,” she remembers them telling her. “We're not going to let you fail.” She's on track to earn her doctorate from Ohio State in 2019.
In 2008, Dixon became the principal of Columbus Alternative High School. Mary Ellen Sinclair was active in the Friends of CAHS PTA at the time. She and others have nothing but praise for Dixon. “The district is extremely fortunate to have her as the next superintendent,” Sinclair says. “I personally was disappointed with the previous selection process when it came out that there were the secret candidates or whatever, and I thought, ‘Oh Lord, this was the one chance to secure such a talented person for the position.' And it looked like it wasn't going to happen.”
Of her secret candidacy, Dixon says Columbus' first search firm, Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, reached out to her, but she never applied for the job. The Dispatch reported that she had become a finalist. When asked about it during a recent interview, she laughs and replies, “That's what I've heard.” She met with the board but insists she never formally interviewed.
Candidates are often hesitant to apply for superintendent openings because the searches are public, and they don't want to risk their current jobs in other districts. Discretion was a factor for Dixon. In district emails printed in The Dispatch, Hazard consultant Alan Leis instructed someone to escort Dixon through “the proper door” for a meeting with the board during that first search. “She is anxious about being anonymous in a building where her face is known,” Leis wrote.
Dixon says she dropped out of the initial superintendent search because the timing wasn't good—she was building a new home in the Cleveland Heights district. When the search began anew this past spring, she says she did some soul searching. She felt she was destined for the Columbus job and wondered if her new home was a good enough reason to pass it up. Maybe the second opportunity was a sign. This time around, she officially applied.***
In a June meeting with a new set of potential search firms, school board member W. Shawna Gibbs asked Debra Hill and Kevin Castner from BWP & Associates how they would guide the board if members wanted to select a candidate BWP believes is a poor choice. Hill told her that the key is to build consensus from within. Castner reiterated the point: No one wants to go public with a 4-3 vote for a new superintendent.
The board has had a reputation for those split votes—with Brown, Hudson and Paretti typically dissenting against the majority bloc of Baker, Gibbs, Michael Cole and Ramona Reyes—and that's concerning for some people. Baker rejects the notion that board members are at odds, calling it a false narrative that emerged in reports about the failed search. “If you look at this board's voting record, you will see that—and I haven't counted all the pieces of legislation that we've passed in the last year or two—but you'll see that over 90 percent of the time this board votes together and that we are almost always united.”
That may be true, but most of those votes are on routine operational issues, Hudson says. On major policies and tough decisions, such as selecting the superintendent, they struggle to find consensus. In her view, the board's divide stems from the data-rigging scandal of 2012, which caused members of the majority voting bloc to be mistrustful of some community partnerships, the local media and public scrutiny. She opposed Stanford's superintendent bid because she worried that his association with Gene Harris, who led the district during the scandal, would undermine community confidence. She privately urged the board to restart the first search when it became obvious to her that members were split and no consensus was coming. She was relieved when Yost intervened.
The board came to an agreement on Dixon, voting unanimously in her favor in September. The next day, Paretti resigned after two colleagues in the Ohio House of Representatives, where he worked as a legislative aide, came forward with allegations that he sent lewd texts. He was eventually replaced by James Ragland, a business consultant and former mayoral candidate.***
The district that awaits Dixon has more than a wayward superintendent search to address—it also has that giant F issued by the state. If Columbus' schools receive two more consecutive failing grades, in the fall of 2020 it will be turned over to a state-controlled academic distress commission. At that time, an appointed CEO would take charge and wield wide-ranging powers that include the ability to replace school administrators, control the budget, determine curriculum and permanently close schools.
Few people seem happy with the current A-F system, which was rolled out in 2012 to give parents and taxpayers a quick understanding of school performance based on six measures of success. One common grievance is that the goalposts shift each year, though Chris Woolard from the Ohio Department of Education says the law lays out a system for certain escalating standards. OSBA's Cheryl Ryan says the major complaint from districts is that the average person doesn't look into the metrics. “All they see is that D or that B or that F,” she says, “and they don't understand that that doesn't mean that the district is failing every student.”
This is the first year this particular report card system has included overall district grades. Conversations have fixated on those ratings rather than on where districts have made progress or need to perform better, says Stanford, who is still serving as interim superintendent. He supports state Rep. Mike Duffey's House Bill 591, which would do away with letter grades, among other changes.
During a presentation at a Columbus school board meeting on Oct. 16, chief accountability officer Machelle Kline and chief academic officer Alesia Gillison—the former Brookhaven administrator—emphasized that despite Columbus' two Ds and four Fs on the report card's six components, schools improved in 16 of 21 categories of academic achievement, and four-year graduation rates are rising. While the overall F rating might not tell the whole story, a deeper look at the report card doesn't provide a much brighter picture. Chronic student absenteeism was at 41.4 percent. Eighty-one percent of schools in the district received Ds and Fs. There were three Bs—at Clinton, Gable and Winterset elementary schools—18 Cs and not one A.
At the Oct. 16 meeting, Stanford introduced a plan to allocate $2 million to try to improve the district's grade when state tests are taken in the spring. The money will go toward additional training for 600 teachers, hiring 40 part-time instructional assistants, a weekend reading academy and other tactics that build upon initiatives in the district's five-year strategic plan. School administrators spoke passionately at the meeting, sometimes railing against the report cards and other times using the F grade as a fulcrum to spark a sea change. The effort to improve schools will require the entire community to come together, Hudson said at one point.
Less than two months later, she announced her resignation following a contentious board meeting in which Baker gaveled her down for attempting to publicly discuss decisions about a facilities task force. In an interview the next day, Hudson declines to call out any board members specifically, but points to leadership problems as a reason for the 4-3 division. She feels the board could be doing a better job of telling the community about its struggles, such as the constraints of the state funding formula, which caps the district and shortchanges Columbus by tens of millions of dollars annually.
If the district is going to advocate effectively, she says, “we have got to lose the ‘Columbus City Schools against the world' mentality.”***
Columbus is hardly alone in its struggles. None of Ohio's 10 most populated cities scored well—three Ds and seven Fs. Large, urban school districts have been an unsolvable Rubik's Cube for ages. Stephanie Hightower, CEO of the Columbus Urban League and a former school board president, says the nation hasn't figured out how to make these districts work.
“Let's face it: How many suburbs, rich suburbs, have failing schools?” asks John Coneglio, president of the Columbus Education Association, which represents district teachers. “None, right?” Schools reflect the community, he says, and if a neighborhood is broken and struggling, so is the school. Poverty is the biggest culprit, says Rhonda Johnson, Columbus' education director, who serves as a liaison between the city and the school district.
“I can't point to an urban district with high levels of concentrated poverty that [is] successfully educating children,” says Lisa Courtice, CEO of the United Way of Central Ohio. In the last decade, she has seen donors grow more interested in the charter school model, which could provide a testing ground for innovative educational methods. But it could also signal that community leaders are increasingly fatigued by a district in constant crisis.
Residents in middle- and upper-income groups generally aren't sending their children to Columbus public schools, so their opinions are largely based on state grades and how those get reported in the media, says Bob Weiler, a real estate developer and former school board president. Those parents don't see the schools intimately enough to make an accurate impression. Thus, income inequality, which has worsened since his time on the board in the 1980s, causes a discrepancy between perception of schools and reality, and he acknowledges that economic segregation is often tied inextricably to racial segregation.
Dixon has dealt with some of those entrenched issues in Cleveland Heights. After she arrived in 2014, she discovered the school system had nearly split into two districts along economic and racial lines. One district served white and middle class black students, while the other served low-income black students. Gifted programs were mostly white, and expert teachers and financial resources flowed disproportionately to higher performing schools.
To address the problem, Dixon and her colleagues created a task force and made equity and diversity training required for all district staff. The school board also adopted a formal equity policy. She says discussions about race and equity are necessary. “In the absence of talking about it, I think we're doing a disservice to our students and to our community.”
She wants to ensure that all students in Columbus will have an equitable education regardless of their socioeconomic status. That means there's much work to be done, which is made more difficult by an F grade that reinforces the preexisting beliefs of many residents.
Even Johnson, a longtime Columbus teacher, finds it difficult to ignore. “It's hard for me to get past that F on the report card,” she says. “I just can't.”***
When Dixon arrived in Cleveland Heights, she was the fifth superintendent in less than a decade, she says. No one believed she would stay. There was a lack of trust, and residents didn't think administrators acted with transparency. So she's not exactly expecting a parade welcoming her back to Columbus.
“Anytime you come in new, you're going to be scrutinized every single day,” she says. “But I hope the community understands that when you work on systemic changes to any organization—that's painful. There are going to be pain points.”
She, too, may feel some pain. Columbus is a far larger and more complex district. Cleveland Heights has 11 schools and about 5,200 students. Columbus is the largest district in the state, with about 51,000 students across 109 schools. Dixon loves visiting with teachers and administrators in person, but she hasn't quite figured out the logistics of how to make her presence felt in more than 100 buildings.
Time isn't working in her favor either. Her contract negotiations stretched almost two months, and though she says she'll spend at least one day a week in Columbus starting in January, she doesn't begin full time until March. State testing starts a month later, and if those tests cause Columbus to get another F next September, she'll have less than a year to improve the district's grade, or face a takeover.
There's pressure, she acknowledges, but she doesn't want the district to focus on the possibility of a state takeover. She doesn't want schools to become incubators for exams, with robots for students and educators teaching to tests. But she's also aware of the stakes.
“I think it would be dishonest for me to say, ‘Oh, I'm not worried about anything, and that's not on our mind.' I mean, of course that's not true. In reality, it is. But Columbus chose me because they want a leader. They want someone to come in and help put systems in place that change the narrative for our community and for our kids.”
It's an ambitious goal. The question isn't just if Dixon can do it—it's if the district and its leaders are capable of the unprecedented overhaul that changing the narrative will require.