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Forum Panel Shows Division Over Columbus Schools Ballot Issues

Issues 50 and 51 on the ballot this fall for the Columbus City Schools have been unprecedented, both in the size and the scope of the plans, and in the amount of passion they have inspired for and against.  The Columbus Metropolitan Club brought supporters and opponents together Tuesday.  Alison Holm reports. 

The ways in which Issues 50 and 51 have divided the community were clearly evident even in the composition of the Metropolitan clubs panel. Former school board presidents Terry Boyd and Stephanie Hightower were on opposites ends of the issue.  Hightower, who now heads the Columbus Urban League, squared off against former League leader, Sam Gresham.  Eric Fingerhut, a former state representative and Chancellor of the state Board of Regents, headed the Mayor's Education Commission, which this spring drafted a series of 55 recommendations to improve the district.  He says the levy is needed because, despite some bright spots, the Columbus City School system simply isn't working.

EF: It's fun to be able to stand up and say there's nothing wrong with the schools, the schools aren't broken.  but the fact is that out of 120 schools in the city of Columbus, 60 of them are failing on the state report card.  Fully 30,000 children in failing schools.

Former school board president Terry Boyd says he's not opposed to the goals of the school levy, but that too few details about how money will be spent and how programs will be implemented have been made clear.

TB:  The plan... is to plan.  and there is not a bank that exists that would give anyone money if they came in and said: 'hey, I got an idea...'  You need to talk about how you intend
to achieve these ideas.  these are inspirational ideas, but they have no meat, as far as the blueprint to achieve the initiatives that they talk about.

Boyd says, without a detailed plan, the district runs the risk of frittering away funds without achieving results, something he says has happened with past levies, even under his tenure as board president.  But Hightower says those details need to be ironed out by those on the front lines.

SH: That's why you have professional educators and administrators. Hopefully Dr. Good and his team will be able to, based upon the blueprint that put in place, they will then be able to come up with the strategies and put together the metrics that are going to be needed.  But that was not what this committee was there to do.

In addition to raising funds for technology, transportation and pre-K education, Issue 50 will also raise funds for high-performing charter schools. The companion Issue 51 would create the position of independent auditor, who will evaluate the district's plans.  Fingerhut says it's a model that has served the city well.

EF: The mayor, the council president may think that a bond issue, a tax issue, or a budget is good, but is our city auditor, if our independent city auditor doesn't agree, there's a second set of eyes on it.  We ask the voters to give us the opportunity to create that kind of checks and balances.  So that we can keep each other accountable, keep each other honest, into the future.

But Sam Gresham says the independent auditor issue touches on a larger question about the direction of education in the Columbus schools.

SG:  The only independent auditor is elected by the people.  This auditor is not independent.  he or she is now controlled but what has been described as the new school board, the 'phantom school board'.  Which consists of the mayor, the president of the school board, the auditor, a judge....  They were never elected to do things about education, but they will be managing this independent auditor.

The 9.01 mill combined levy and bond issue is the largest in the school district's history, and will cost the owner of a 100,000 dollar home an additional 315 dollars.

A native of Chicago, naturalized citizen of Cincinnati and resident of Columbus, Alison attended Earlham College and the Ohio State University. She has equal passion for Midwest history, hockey and Slavic poetry.
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