School board leaders unite to face challengesWritten by Brandi Barhite | Community Ombudsman | email@example.com
Toledo school board president Bob Vasquez cannot mow his grass these days. If people see him outside, they stop to talk about the district’s budget.
“This is a real difficult situation for the schools,” he said. “We are in a more difficult situation than I ever thought we would be facing when I ran for office.”
It has been a tumultuous school year that has included a failed levy, the decision to close Libbey High School to save money, a search for a new superintendent and a deficit that will likely result in a massive amount of teacher layoffs.
The attention has been constant — even during yard work.
“I seem to be the face for the trouble,” Vasquez said. “I am constantly stopped. It never fails that someone comes up to me. I get a lot of people saying, you are doing a good job. Nobody says you are doing a bad job, but people want to tell me how the decisions we make affect them personally, and usually when they tell me, it is not a good thing.”
Board vice president Lisa Sobecki has been by his side, trying to make what they call “business decisions.”
“We have 26,000 children in our family and we also have mentors that involve teachers and support staff that you juggle in all of this. They are all hard decisions,” she said. “You look at transportation, you look at outdoor education programs like the sixth-grade camp, which was going into fifth-grade camp for this year, you look at cutting people’s positions … those are heart-breaking.”
Sobecki said deciding what to cut involves putting together opinions she gathers.
She walked through the neighborhoods surrounding Libbey before voting to close the school.
Vasquez has specifically elevated the role of vice president to be his partner “because I think the decisions that we make and the impact that we have is so awesome that you really need another person.”
“I am not always right,” he said. “Lisa and others on the board have given me advice to not follow through with some things. I am open to it and open to changing what I thought.”
But board member Larry Sykes said Vasquez isn’t open to suggestions. He wasn’t happy to be excluded from the decision making behind Vasquez’s recent announcement to form a committee of business leaders to overhaul the school district.
“I feel like I am being left out. I am not being included in certain things,” he said. “I am not interested in fighting anyone … I just want to do right for the district.”
Adding to its problems, the board has been challenged to find ways to cut a growing $35 million deficit.
Vasquez said he doesn’t know yet how many teachers will be laid off, but it will “probably be the largest amount of teachers that have been laid off ever.”
Fran Lawrence, the president of the Toledo Federation of Teachers, did not return calls seeking comment.
Vasquez said teachers are making sacrifices. It might not be salary concessions, but they are willing to let some of their own go.
It is not just teachers. Bus drivers, custodians, secretaries and administrators are among those who might be affected.
“These are human beings; these are lives,” Sobecki said.
Vasquez said the defeat of the levy, which would have erased half of the deficit, did not surprise him.
During the levy, he heard from people who said the board was not a good steward of the money. That disappointed him. Some of that sentiment came from the incident with Dan Burns, the former chief business administrator accused of mismanaging funds.
“I was shocked to find out about that,” Vasquez said. “I was even more surprised that the checks and balances weren’t there that needed to be there.
“When you are elected a board member, you deal with what is there when you get there,” he said. “Dan Burns was one thing. Another thing was dealing with labor contracts, which were just deferred; we had to deal with that. People don’t see that history and think we are responsible for that.”
Steven Flagg, a community activist and education advocate, said the board is “extremely dysfunctional without any direction,” citing the recent comments made by Sykes about the president and vice president not working in a collaborative mode.
“Mr. Vasquez has made a promise about an independent committee. My understanding of independent committee is that it has to be truly independent,” Flagg said.
Sobecki said becoming a school board member comes with a learning curve. Most people do not understand school financing. When the state suffers, districts suffer because funding is cut.
She hears from people who wonder why Toledo Public Schools (TPS) is building new schools or renovating old ones like Scott High School.
“School funds often come with requirements that money is spent in a certain way,” said Scott Ebright, spokesman for the Ohio School Boards Association. “To the average citizen, taxes are taxes. School money for a bond issue can only be used to build buildings or renovate. Operating money can be a lot more flexible … state or federal money comes with very specific purposes. It can be used for reading and nutrition. There are a lot of funds that schools receive that are earmarked for specific purposes and it cannot be transferred back and forth.”
The board has also been faced with hiring a superintendent by mid-to-late June, so the new leader can shadow outgoing John Foley.
“Sometimes change is good,” Vasquez said. “Change scares people, but if you embrace change as an opportunity and you do everything to make it an opportunity … really good things can happen.”
Sobecki said the superintendent search is an opportunity for the community to voice its expectations, although the timing is bad.
“We have other battles we are having to go through; [this is] just one piece to the daily task to what we have to do.”
Vasquez said he would like to see a superintendent who is an accessible leader and knowledgeable about education, business and finances.
“What people don’t know is that Toledo Public Schools has been making progress until this financial crisis has come about. We remain in continuous improvement and inches from effective,” he said.
“Mr. Foley is leaving and it seems as though he might be leaving because of the board or whatever other reason, but my concern is the good things that Mr. Foley has put into place,” Vasquez said.
Foley said it is up to the board, but he is willing to assist with the transition.
“We have a solid team in place that isn’t leaving and that will be a resource to the next person. I am willing to do whatever.”
Foley said he has tried to set plans into motion that will extend beyond the tenure of any one person at TPS.
His work has included ongoing assessments to provide better instruction, to align curriculum and to reduce the scholarly impact a student might experience when transferring to another school.
Foley said he hasn’t had time to reflect on his career at TPS because of cutting the deficit. He is proud he helped create a climate where parents play a more active role in the schools.
“There are always things you wish you could do. There is always more to do,” he said.
Not all bad
Sobecki said she wants people to know it is not all “doom and gloom.”
“We have all these kids who are going to be graduating,” she said. “I am so darn proud of them — every one of them.”
Sobecki said scholarships through UT and Owens are giving students a chance at college degrees.
Bethany Bitter, 20, will graduate from Owens in December. The 2008 Woodward High School graduate participates in the Owens Success Program, which bridges the gap between tuition and financial aid.
Without this program, “I would have had to take out loans and be in debt for a good chunk of my life,” she said.
From 2003-2007, Owens drew an average of 233 students directly from TPS high schools. In 2009, the first time the program was open to all TPS schools, Owens enrolled 309 TPS students.
Sobecki said the district’s teachers are also noteworthy. She recently saw the band director pull up when the band members were raising money for new uniforms.
“He is not being paid and it is on a Saturday,” Sobecki said. “You see this throughout our district all the time. Teachers coming to football and baseball games to root our kids on and they are grading papers while they are there.”
Woodward Band Director Dennis Oehlers said when Sobecki saw him the students were “canning” at different businesses and he wanted to make sure they were safe.
“To succeed, you have to go above and beyond. This isn’t a 40-hour-a-week job,” said the 1972 Woodward graduate.
“When I was a senior in high school, I said I hope to become Woodward High School band director,” Oehlers said. “This is a dream come true. The neighborhood has changed immensely since I was here, but the kids are great.”
Sobecki said Rogers is a good example of the district’s progress with special education. A junior, Tyler Wiley has been with TPS since he was 3 years old. Sandy Wiley-Steward said though her son has Down syndrome, TPS has tried to include him in homecoming parades, plays and other activities.
Moving into next school year, Vasquez said his goal is to keep the board focused on achieving financial stability, good labor relations and quality education.
But help from Columbus is vital.
“Unless we change how schools are financed, every school in Ohio will have financial challenges. We have to find influential people to help us and try to convince people to come up with a new system to finance schools,” he said.
Sobecki said the district is still going to have money issues in the future. She also wants help from Columbus.
“We lose $60 million a year to charter schools; we lose $7 million a year to ed-voucher. They are affecting our budget. They are affecting what is happening in our district.”
Vasquez said bad publicity will occur in a district with 4,000 employees and 26,000 students, but the board cannot give up.
“I understand why the community loses faith in TPS, but I am not going to let that be the end-all; we need to restore that,” he said.
Vasquez said Toledo needs to be a city that values education, which can be instilled in part by the mayor.
“For the school system and for the city to survive that we have to work together,” said Toledo Mayor Mike Bell. “We have to take an open approach to make sure education is a priority for our city. Not having a very strong school system will have a negative economical impact on our city because the drawing force for people moving into your city is knowing your school system is strong.”
In coming weeks, Vasquez and Sobecki will present a plan to address the many responsibilities the district has beyond educating. They would not elaborate, but want to work with community agencies to fill the gaps when it comes to feeding, clothing and even providing athletics.
The board examined pay-to-play, but the school would be required to pick up the fee for any student who receives free or reduced lunch, so the cut would not end up being significant enough, they said.
As Vasquez and Sobecki walk into board meetings, people yell at them to cut their salaries. What most people don’t know is that school board members are paid $80 per regular school board meeting, they said. Cutting that would not make a dent into the deficit.
Plus, “it costs us more to be a board member,” Vasquez said, citing transportation, donations and paying to attend functions.
“On a personal level, I have given up every birthday in my family this year,” said Sobecki, who has two sons who attend TPS.
And Vasquez cannot even mow his grass. But they embrace it.
“The people in the City of Toledo are fantastic and the majority of them are very respectful and very caring about what is going on in their community and they want to make sure we have quality schools,” Vasquez said. “I enjoy the interaction with them and I think that speaks well of our city and community. I embrace that.”