CPS Board Fails at Community Engagement
Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) has received significant public blow-back over two recent issues: sponsorship of an in-district charter school, and taking-back the old Clifton School building from the Clifton Cultural Arts Center (CCAC) for use by Fairview-Clifton German Language School. The merits of these important issues will not be discussed here; there are good arguments on either side of these debates.
Rather, this post will address a more troubling trend: the refusal of CPS board leadership to engage the community in meaningful ways on issues that matter deeply to parents and community members. Without good engagement and dialog among all stakeholders, the CPS board will continue to make decisions that frustrate parents and drive them to the suburbs or private/charter schools. A healthy, truly transparent dialog, however, will lead to a deeper understanding of everyone’s needs, better decisions, and more satisfied constituents (even if they don’t “get what they want”—good faith listening tends to do that because people feel good about “truly being heard”).
Unfortunately, poor engagement is a long-standing complaint about CPS. Recently, parents howled when CPS simply announced that it was ending camp-outs and going to a lottery system for magnate schools. There was no public input or discussion of other options before the decision was made; the board simply offered an explanation of why they made the decision, refusing to even delay the decision so parents who relied on past practice could make alternate plans (like moving!).
How the CPS board handled the sponsorship of an in-district charter school, however, shows a real lack of understanding of community engagement. In response to a community member who claimed the decision-making process was moving too fast and lacking transparency, one board member said, “Anybody could have followed the issue in the board meeting minutes.” However, even someone like Carolyn Miller, a long-serving Clifton activist who follows local government closely, said that she has had a hard time following this issue despite attending every board meeting and reading every document on the issue (including extensive and technical proposals/contracts). How can a “civilian” parent be expected to weigh-in at a public hearing when it would take hours of reading complex documents to even understand the issue?
What the CPS board doesn’t understand is that they have an ethical obligation to proactively educate its constituents and seek their input, not bury issues in the fine print. There are profound policy questions to be addressed within these specific issues, especially for something as significant as a public school district opening a controversial charter school (see Michelle Dillingham’s editorial in the Cincinnati Enquirer). On such issues, the board has an obligation to set a course that aligns with community values, and that can only be done through extensive in-person dialog.
Interestingly, the two strongest advocates for the in-district charter school are Elisa Hoffman and Ericka Copeland-Dansby, both of whose campaigns were financially backed by the Cincinnati Business Committee (CBC), long-known for its behind-the-scenes influence peddling and advocacy of pro-business positions. Many naturally wonder if the rush-to-decide and the lack of transparency is due to pressure from these big-money campaign contributors. Moreover, much like the Bush administration gave Halliburton a no-bid contract for work done in Iraq, the CPS board never asked for proposals from other providers (Phalen Leadership Academy is the only one being considered).
Whether or not these board members are offering a quid pro quo for campaign support is irrelevant; the optics are bad when board members beholden to the business community rush decisions that benefit that same community. My guess is that the values of most Cincinnatians, and especially low-income parents, are not aligned with those of the business community, so doesn’t the board owe it to those same constituents to use good public engagement to correct the imbalance caused by campaign finances? Or at least ask for multiple bids to get the best use from the public’s money?
The CCAC issue reveals even deeper failures in CPS’s community engagement process. Most egregious is how the CPS board engages with the LSDMC at Fairview-Clifton German Language School (which is emblematic of the board’s relationship with all LSDMCs–an issue currently being addressed by those parent leaders). While technically the decision to expand into the CCAC is beyond the scope of an LSDMC, there is no better representation of a school community than its LSDMC. In this case, the Fairview-Clifton LSDMC is very concerned that displacing the CCAC will hurt Clifton families and the overall community because so many people love the family-centric mini-campus formed by the renovated recreation center, the CCAC, and the school. However, the CPS board will not meet with or even return emails from the LSDMC.
CPS leadership argues that they conducted a survey on this issue, which should count as “engagement”. But surveys are an impersonal snapshot of public opinion. For tough issue, people need to empathize with each other to understand the problem, then work together to co-create and discuss several options for resolution. Such a process doesn’t require the board to relinquish decision-making control; they just need to make a good faith effort to seek and value public input throughout the decision-making process, from problem identification to brainstormed to deliberation.
CPS also argues that they did meet with nearly 40 people from CUF, Spring Grove Village and Clifton to discuss the CCAC issue. But again, the process was flawed—the facilitators asked detailed questions about the program that parents wanted at Fairview-Clifton rather than address more foundational questions like:
- Should CUF, Spring Grove Village, and Clifton all be lumped together as one “neighborhood”?
- What is each community’s long-term vision for education? Where do these neighborhoods have common/different interests? What does each community need in a community school?
- Is Rockdale Academy meeting community needs as Clifton’s neighborhood school? Can Rockdale be upgraded to meet those needs?
- What role should Fairview-Clifton play in meeting the community’s needs?
- How else might we meet community and district needs other than expanding into the CCAC?
- Why does paying for preschool on Vine Street give parents priorty for Fairview-Clifton (another issue that the board didn’t seek input on)? Is there a better way to give priority?
These are only a few of the questions that should have been considered before a discussion of the specific programming at Fairview-Clifton (which only served to confuse the public and justify the board’s decisionprocess). In other words, good engagement asks these basic questions of a community, all of which were skipped by CPS: What do you want? Why do you want it? How are we going to achieve it?
In the end, despite the survey and public meeting, 1) the CPS board still doesn’t have good public feedback on this issue, and 2) no one from the community has been present when decisions are being made. And when people haven’t been asked for their relevant opinions, and when they aren’t in the room for an issue is discussed, they don’t trust what went into the sausage. And CPS is turning out a lot of questionable sausage these days.
Another new self-imposed obstacle to CPS doing good public engagement: emails to board members now go through a central person who writes back on behalf of the board. No longer can a constituent actually reach out to a board member to find a sympathetic ear and potential champion for their issue. Rather, board leadership gains more control over its agenda by limiting access to board members who might oppose that agenda.
And finally, when CPS accedes to demands for community engagement, they just send a lawyer who can spin legalese and deflect anything from actually entering the board’s awareness. CPS did this when they sent a lawyer to “talk to” Clifton Town Meeting about the CCAC, a conversation residents found unsatisfying. So the board won’t personally read or respond to emails addressed to them, and they send lawyers to a community meeting: could it be more obvious that the CPS board doesn’t care what the public thinks?