Columbus Education Meeting Discusses Possible Big Changes

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Columbus Education Commission director Eric Fingerhut opens up the panel's final meeting with a discussion of change and democracy. It looks as if the commission is moving toward making a recommendation that Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman have some involvement in the district.(Photo: Mandie Trimble, WOSU News Reporter)
Columbus Education Commission director Eric Fingerhut opens up the panel's final meeting with a discussion of change and democracy. It looks as if the commission is moving toward making a recommendation that Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman have some involvement in the district.(Photo: Mandie Trimble, WOSU News Reporter)

The commission studying the future of the Columbus City Schools met for their final hearing Thursday and got to the heart of the matter — who should run them. The Columbus Education Commission heard suggestions on how the troubled school district should be governed. As WOSU reports, the theme of the meeting was big change is needed.

Education Commission director Eric Fingerhut opened the final meeting with a lesson about democracy and change. Fingerhut said, “the [U.S.] prizes its democracy,” and underscored change does not diminish democracy.

The meeting focused on possible big changes in school leadership.

The mayor and commission members assert they are not trying to overthrow Columbus City Schools leadership. But some remain unconvinced.

Much of the commission’s final session focused on districts with appointed school boards and heavy mayoral involvement. Eric Fingerhut offered some appointment models.

“The state of New Jersey appoints the attorney general. The state of Ohio, the governor, appoints the board of the Ohio State University,” he said.

Fingerhut specifically noted how Boston’s mayor appoints school board members from a community panel.

Columbus City School Board president Carol Perkins, who serves on the commission, vehemently opposes an appointed school board.

“Local control is still very, very important. Constituents should have the right to select school board members.”

Commission members heard from Susan Bodary, with Education First, an organization that analyzes current educational trends. Bodary noted mayors run about 20 school districts around the country.

She presented commission members with the different degrees of mayoral control from passive support to total oversight. And Bodary quoted results of a Center for American Progress study which indicates about half of the districts run by mayors show significant progress and are closing the achievement gap. But she acknowledged the model doesn’t always work.

“There is no silver bullet. There is no guarantee,” she said. “Each city has to examine itself, its leadership and its structure, and look at its state policy context and make a decision for whether change is significantly going to help them get where they want to go.”

Bodary pointed to success in low income districts, and said poverty is not an excuse for failure.

School Board president Perkins said they are not making excuses, but she questioned how success is possible in a district, like Columbus, where some students are homeless.

Fellow commission member Janet Jackson countered that Columbus City School children are surrounded by organizations able to assist those who face poverty.

“I hear too many excuses. So here now, let’s just move forward,” Jackson said. “We must need [Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman's] continued involvement. But I’m not sure what style or model that is. We certainly have seen models such as in Cleveland, kind of a mayoral takeover. I don’t believe that’s what our mayor has ever wanted. But I believe we have to have more accountability.”

Commission member and businesswoman Tanny Crane leans toward some mayoral control. While she’s unsure what the model will look like, she said change is imperative.

“The status quo will not work. I’m convinced of that,” she said. “So whether it’s mayoral involvement with leadership of the community in an appointed or electoral, or maybe it’s a hybrid.”

The commission is set to meet April 10 and 26 to hammer out a specific recommendation. Because the commission has no legal authority, any significant changes would require modifications to state law.

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