Tension Mounts Over Future Control Of Columbus Schools

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Columbus City Schools will have new leadership later this year.(Photo: Columbus City Schools)
Columbus City Schools will have new leadership later this year.(Photo: Columbus City Schools)

Tonight the growing tension over the future control of the Columbus City Schools will be on display as the Columbus Board of Education meets to discuss whether to hire an interim superintendent to replace the retiring Gene Harris.

A new education commission formed by the mayor wants to delay the hiring of a permanent superintendent until the commission makes its recommendations on the future of the schools. Many fear the commission will lead to a mayoral or corporate take-over of the schools.

The stated mission of the Columbus Education Commission is to examine the challenges facing Columbus City Schools. Joseph Rugola fears the mission is something more. Rugola is local head of the AFL-CIO which represents 3,000 non-teaching workers in the Columbus schools. It recently took out full page newspaper ads in African-American newspapers with a simple goal.

“To prevent any form of state or corporate takeover of the Columbus City schools,” Rugola said.

Rugola fears the commission is preparing for reducing the role of an elected board of education, similar to what’s happened in other large cities like Cleveland, Chicago and Philadelphia.

“In all these communities where this has happened there’s been division created, schools have been closed, overwhelmingly in the poorest neighborhoods, and kids from the lowest performing schools have been transferred and shipped out to other schools not in their neighborhoods and the bottom line is that they haven’t performed any better than before all of these takeovers were engineered,” Rugola said.

The head of the commission, Eric Fingerhut, says it’s too early for that kind of talk.
The panel made up of CEO’s of top companies, union officials and community activists is in the midst of studying the school district in advance of a possible tax levy request later this year. It plans to issue recommendations in April.

While not specifically not ruling it out, Fingerhut challenges the union’s characterization of a possible “corporate take-over” of the school district.

“I think, obviously I disagree with that particular characterization and it’s not at all an accurate characterization. The commission has no recommendations yet. We don’t have a plan. We don’t have recommendations. So, to express those things seem to me to be not accurate,” Fingerhut said.

Some members of the elected Columbus school board appear worried about losing control.
A pending resolution asks for clarification on the commission’s role as it relates to governance of the school district. The issue surfaces after Mayor Michael Coleman asked the board to delay hiring a new superintendent until after the education commission makes its recommendations.

Then there is the issue of money. The commission has a million dollar budget, half from a group of Columbus business leaders and half from taxpayers of the City of Columbus.

Fingerhut says so far the commission has spent about a quarter of a million dollars.

“We’re consulting with experts, and of course paying those experts to advise us. We are doing an extensive public outreach campaign, which includes not just websites and social media but also public meetings, focus groups, prepaid postcards, there’ll be some TV ads to make sure people know about the opportunity to provide comment and input.” Fingerhut said.

But there is no way for the public to track the spending. The city transferred the public money to the Columbus Chamber of Commerce group 2020, which sent it on to the education commission. Columbus 2020 did not respond to our request for a written budget, detailing spending. Columbus City council spokesman John Ivanic says an itemized accounting of the commission spending of public monies will come when the commission’s work is completed.

Because any change in governance of the Columbus schools would require a change in state law, union head Rugola questions whether the lobbying has begun.

“Our view is that anything that deprives the citizens of this community to vote on their own leadership is disenfranchisement of voters in the extreme and corporate money or any money, public money, shouldn’t be spent in a way that encourages that kind of an anti-democratic outcome,” Rugola said.

Fingerhut says the commission will not spend public money on lobbying.
“It will not be.” Says Fingerhut.

Will it keep at all an itemized budget and make it available to the public?

Fingerhut responded. “Of course, everybody will know what the public funds are spent on. Absolutely.”

The Columbus school board meets tonight to discuss whether to appoint an interim superintendent. The mayor’s education panel will review district leadership at its March meeting.

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