Columbus’ mayor says city’s schools needed vital intervention

Sep 8, 2013 by

A year ago, an anxious and frustrated Mayor Michael B. Coleman stood in front of educators and politicians to announce that he would intervene in the Columbus City Schools.

In the following months, the board of education said it wouldn’t tolerate a takeover, the district’s data scandal got worse with allegations of grade changing, and state report cards showed that the district’s schools were getting worse at educating children.

Now, the city’s longest-serving mayor has his eyes wide open as he tries to tackle the district’s problems. Coleman contends that he has arrived at the most-critical moment in his political career and is “all in” personally and professionally. He said he can not ignore what he described as the “disgraceful” and “poor” education most of the 65,000 schoolchildren who live in the Columbus school district are receiving.

In an exclusive interview with The Dispatch last week, Coleman detailed tough moments with a defiant Columbus Board of Education, rebuked critics who say he’s a tool of the city’s powerful business leaders and explained why passing a tax levy in November is the most vital piece of his intervention.

Here are Coleman’s answers to key education questions asked during a two-hour interview:

Q: You’ve got a lot of political capital, sweat and time wrapped up in this levy. How big of a stake is this for you personally?

A: This is the hardest thing I’ve ever been engaged in as mayor. I think it’s the most important I’ve ever been engaged in as mayor. I think it’s the most important thing the community has ever tackled. So I am not going to say that if this is something that doesn’t happen in November that the rest of my time as mayor has been irrelevant. I think that would be an unfair characterization.

But I can say it’s the most important thing as to the future of this city.

Q: Why is it the hardest?

A: I don’t have a long-term background in education policy. There are two things I had to learn quickly, and those were education policy and education politics. … I spent an enormous amount of hours focused on the policy side of education — what works — and that education solutions are not simple; they are complex.

Then there is education politics. … What I’ve learned is that people tend to blame the failure of education on someone else: It’s the teachers; it’s the schools; it’s the parents; it’s the business community; it’s the curriculum.

The very blame is not on someone else. It’s on all of us. We all need to accept the blame, and once we do that, then we have to accept the responsibility to help change this.  Q: What made you finally decide to make that leap?

A: I started reading in The Dispatch about a data scandal at the district. And I looked at it and continued to review it and became very concerned … and then began to realize our school system was in serious jeopardy, and I felt it was time for intervention and not control. This was a crisis. The education issue has the ability to change the direction of our entire city. If education fails in the city, then it will change the direction this city goes. It has the ability of derailing progress in every other area. So the stakes are high.

Q: What was the toughest moment for you in the past year?

A: One moment was when the board of education passed a resolution that called for the mayor not to take over the district. … It was tough for me because I had said repeatedly that I had no intention of doing that. Frankly, I had to just get through it, let it go and put it behind me.

Q: What has been your proudest moment so far?

A: In April, (the Columbus Education Commission) unanimously approved 55 recommendations that will change public education in Columbus for generations. When we formed the commission, nobody had the same agenda. Everyone had different points of view and different opinions. Some of them felt that (I) should take over the district. Some of them felt that this would result in another study in the library of studies.

I view that document as a declaration of independence, declaring us free from the past and focused on the future.

Q: What’s your response to the sentiment that you are taking direction from the business leaders?

A: I think it is not a secret that a lot of folks in the business community wanted me to take over the district. So if that were the case, I would have taken over the district. I believe the business community has a stake in this. I think everybody has a stake in this. I’ve had to push members of the business community to the table, just as I had to push folks (in the) neighborhood to the table.

Q: Your State of the City address (in February) — when you criticized the district while the school-board members were sitting there — was that a crucial moment?

A: The message was not just to them but to everybody. I knew they were there. They needed to hear what I believe and what the community believes. Having said that, we’ve had some rough patches along the way, but I have to say now we are all rowing the boat in the same direction. (School Board President) Carol Perkins, as well as some (other) school-board members, have worked cooperatively with us. They get it now. They get the need to be able to look in the mirror and say, “We didn’t do this right and we didn’t do that right — that we did some things wrong.” I give them a lot of credit for walking down the path to progress.

Q: When the state report cards came out last month, you used some pretty strong language in describing the district’s performance. Why?

A: I felt it was important for the public to understand that this is unacceptable, that this is unacceptable for the community for a district to have four F’s, three D’s and two C’s.

Q: Do you think it was important for some district officials to hear that?

A: I think it’s important to be honest about where we are and honest about where we’re going. You have to peel back all the layers and go right to the core. We’re failing, and it’s unacceptable.

Q: What’s your response to people who say, “I want things cleaned up in the district before I vote for the levy”?

A: We are in a moment of time where we have aligned the civic community, the business community and the faith community and the education environment and governmental environment on how this community can fix education for generations to come. … It’s going to be hard to keep all these coalitions together. I heard a guy say, “I am not going to do anything until it’s all fixed.”

This package is the fix. It’s the reform package. If we can’t pass the reform package, there is no fix. So we have that time where one could say, “I had a chance to educate and impact the lives of children this one time and I did. Or I could choose to say no.” Choosing to say no, I don’t think the opportunity is there to do it again.

Q: Giving charter schools a piece of the levy money has raised eyebrows. Why are you including charter schools in the levy funding?

A: People have a very passionate point of view about charter schools. And I understand why they do. Charter schools proliferate without a lot of oversight. Some of them are good, but many are bad. But at the same time, a lot of people are sending their kids there. The reason we decided to deal with them is because 15,000 of our kids in Columbus go to charter schools out of 65,000.

The state has not done a good job of promoting good charters. So we are trying to address the charter issue, that they are held accountable and that they are transparent. In order to get some of that levy money, these charter schools have to be good schools, transparent and held accountable.

Q: Are you going to be involved in evaluating teachers?

A: No. My role is to get the systems in place and the experts engaged and the people together at the table to do the work that is necessary.

Q: In a campaign commercial for the levy, you say, “Because quality education should not depend on the color of a child’s skin, how much money their parents make or the neighborhood they live in.” What was your goal in making that statement?

A: Unfortunately, the quality of someone’s education does depend on the color of their skin, how much money their parents make or the language they speak. There is too great of tolerance for failed education in poor neighborhoods. And I am saying we can’t do that. No matter where they live, that is the right of every kid in the city, and I think everybody should feel passionate about that.

Columbus’ mayor says city’s schools needed vital intervention | The Columbus Dispatch.

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