Proposed committees to review TPSWritten by Kristen Criswell | | firstname.lastname@example.org
The people behind two competing review committees say they have the same goal: achieving the best education for every child in the Toledo Public Schools (TPS) district.
On Aug. 25, a group of 10 area organizations challenged the TPS Board of Education to sanction a committee of area professionals to perform an “in-depth and independent review” of the district. Board president Bob Vasquez proposed the idea of assembling a similar committee independent of TPS to examine the district’s procedures in June.
Both would have individuals from outside the district review TPS policies and make recommendations to the board of education on how to improve the district. Additionally, both aim for a more efficient TPS system that provides a quality education in every setting to every child in the district.
Challenging the board
In May, after the Greater Toledo Urban League (GTUL) took a stand against a TPS levy, individuals and organizations started talking about the need for change within TPS, said John Jones, GTUL president and CEO.
“People started popping out of the woodwork and that’s when we started coalescing,” he said. “Not just individuals, but organizations. People were basically saying ‘Enough is enough. If we don’t do something to help our young folks, what are we going to do?’”
The groups began discussing what they could do “collectively and proactively as part of the community” to help drive discussions, Jones said. After a few meetings, facilitated by the GTUL, the groups developed a joint statement about the state of the TPS.
The statement, delivered at an Aug. 25 press conference, called for a board-chartered committee autonomous of the school district to perform a review of TPS.
“Every one of these groups, in one shape or another, I believe, has expressed frustration in their dealings with TPS and many had offered to be part of the solution,” said Steven Flagg, member of the Urban Coalition, one organization involved in the statement. “This was our opportunity to challenge [the board] to be accountable, justify or say why suggestions weren’t effective. It was done in spirit of cooperation, to be a productive process.
“Times have changed. It’s time we look at how we can be effective in this nanosecond world.”
Additional organizations involved in the joint statement include: African-American Bureau of Commerce, African-American Parents Association, Cherry Street Mission Ministries, Toledo NAACP, Toledo Area Ministries, Toledo Regional Chamber of Commerce, United North and United Pastors for Social Empowerment.
“It’s a good broad cross section of our city,” said Carol Van Sickle, vice president of public affairs for the chamber of commerce. “We all, all the people in those groups, feel it’s very important to support good education in TPS. We’re having challenges as many metro school district are. We need to look at things long term and work together to get the best education we can for the children.”
The group said its decision to make a joint statement does not have to do with a 7.8 mill levy on the November ballot, or the $824,000 that was “found” the previous day.
“This is way beyond the levy,” Jones said.
The organizations would like the committee that is established to do an extensive review of the district, examining curriculum, union contracts, the use of buildings, size of the administration and finances, Jones said. An example of what it would examine is curriculum efficiency and how minor changes to procedure could allow teachers to be more efficient in the classroom, saving costs elsewhere, Jones said.
“Let’s look at everything and see what’s going to be that tipping point that causes us to move in the right direction, positively,” he said.
The committee would require individuals from a vast array of skill sets, all of which Toledo has, Jones said.
The groups are asking the board to sanction a committee, but aren’t trying to take its power, Jones said.
“It’s not an effort to abdicate authority or ask the board to abdicate their authority by no stretch. We want you to use your authority, get engaged, get involved, make sure that process is ushered through to completion,” he said.
Although the group is asking for a committee, it does not want board members or district staff to be on the committee. The groups are also calling for all committee members to be “free of financial or other relationships that pose a conflict of interest” with the district.
“Should the institution be responsible solely themselves to review themselves? That don’t work,” Jones said. Jones noted, however, that some institution involvement may be necessary.
Jones also said defining conflict of interest may be difficult.
“Let’s be honest about this. You have a $300 million organization; who in Toledo ain’t got a piece of that pie? Full disclosure, the Urban League has a program in the summer that gets a small amount of money from the district to do it — about $3,000,” Jones said. “Would that $3,000 be considered a conflict of interest in the scope of $300 million? I would say no, but the flip of that is how do you really determine it?”
Jones said committee members should be picked based on their skill set and if there is a conflict of interest they should remove themselves from the discussion.
“For instance, my wife’s a teacher, so if I were on the committee, and I’m not asking to be, I’d probably need to recuse myself from the discussion of a union contract,” he said. “Would I be able to have a discussion about a review of actual finances, like finding $824,000 somewhere? I probably could because I have an auditing background. It’s those types of things we’d have to walk through.”
The organizations involved in the public statement are not suggesting they be the committee the board appoints, Jones said.
As a collective, the 10 groups did not talk to any board members before making their announcement, Jones said. The group did meet briefly to discuss with Superintendent Jerome Pecko what some of the community concerns are.
Jones said the groups were aware that Vasquez made a statement in June about forming a review committee.
“Vasquez had already said he wanted to see a committee formed. We agree with that,” he said. “As we were talking in May and he said that early June we were like, ‘Hey, that’s a winner, thumbs up.’ The question then becomes how this committee is formed, what are they commissioned to do and is it really all-inclusive?”
Vasquez was taken aback when the groups announced that the board needed to create an outside committee.
“I am surprised they took the same idea that I had and asked for it again,” he said. “The other thing that surprises me even more is that John Jones is on my committee.”
Vasquez hosted a meeting of approximately 20 area business leaders and higher education staff Aug. 26 to discuss solutions for TPS, he said. Individuals were asked to attend one week prior by e-mail, Vasquez said.
Jones said he was at the meeting but was under the impression it was a discussion and not a committee yet. If a committee does result from the discussions and if it gets it right, it will pay for the century to come, Jones said.
“I believe there are a couple of different ways to get to a spot … What I would hope is the discussion spurred is a community feel that backs up what we already know. We need to dig in and get this thing right and there has to be some change. The model that currently exists for Toledo is not sustainable,” he said.
“I could care less who participates. At the end of the day, let’s get something done,” Jones said.
Vasquez hopes to have the group meet again to discuss a possible setup for a committee, define and expand the mission and decide how to proceed, he said. Once those details are decided, Vasquez would like to bring his committee to the board for approval.
Vasquez has support from three other board members for his committee and hopes to have it sanctioned within the next month, he said.
The next meeting of business professionals is tentatively scheduled for Sept. 9, with Mayor Mike Bell leading the meeting, he said.
Jen Sorgenfrei, public information officer for the city, confirmed the mayor will be involved.
“Everyone in that room sees value in TPS and participating in the success in TPS,” she said. Sorgenfrei noted, however, that a formal request for the mayor to be part of a committee has not been made yet.
Vasquez has been working since June to bring business leaders to the table to help reorganize TPS, he said. He’s spoken at business luncheons and at the Toledo Rotary requesting assistance. Members of the group he’s established include chamber of commerce members and University of Toledo President Dr. Lloyd Jacobs.
Vasquez plans to do a complete review of the district focusing on three main parts. In the first part, the committee will look at the structure of the district—who reports to who and what are the positions’ responsibilities, Vasquez said.
Second, the committee needs to look at how the district provides services, he said. The committee will need to look at curriculum and how that meets the needs of current and future students, Vasquez said.
Last, the district needs to look at finances and compare how the district finances things in relation to other districts, he said.
“I’m not looking for a study or strategic plan. I want to get the information that we need and make changes that we need to right away,” Vasquez said.
Vasquez said he hopes to use the business leaders as a steering committee and eventually reach out to other organizations within the region for their input, he said.
The major difference between what he and the groups are proposing is the involvement of the district in the committee, Vasquez said.
In Vasquez’s committee, the superintendent, the treasurer and Vasquez are all members.
“Dr. Pecko and Dan Romano are part of the committee so they know what the suggestions are, because they are part of implementing whatever recommendations that come out of the committee,” Vasquez said.
Having a board member, the superintendent and the treasurer present also saves time, he said. The trio have the institutional knowledge and the policy knowledge to know whether or not something can be done, he said.
“We talked about online classrooms. The superintendent, Mr. Foley, had to share a certain number of hours [teachers] have to have with students face-to-face. I didn’t know that and I’m sure the general public doesn’t know that,” Vasquez said.
“This doesn’t mean we can’t do things, we just need to have that information so we can make good recommendations,” he said.
Vasquez also emphasized his committee is separate from the levy.
“We’re interested in long-term transformation change. It’s no trick or anything for the levy,” he said.
“I’m not politicizing this committee. That’s why I was not out having a press conference for the meeting. I wasn’t looking for the media,” he said.
Both Vasquez and Jones said there is a sense of urgency to help TPS, but it doesn’t mean the committees are going to work haphazardly.
In addition to possible committees to review TPS operations, the Ohio Auditor;s office just began its yearly audit of TPS.
All recommendations made by any committee that is formed must be voted on by the school board before suggestions are implemented.