September 29, 2005 - From the September, 2005 issue

Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic Endorses Mayors Being More Responsible for Public Schools

In most cities, school districts occupy more land than any private developer or other public entity. Yet, the cities in which school districts operate often have no more influence over schools than they do foreign countries. This rift leaves cities incapable not only of regulating land use, but also of tending to their children when the schools disappoint them. Now in his 19th year as mayor of Akron, Ohio, Donald L. Plusquellic shared with TPR some strategies by which cities can both improve their neighborhoods and take back their schools.

Mayor Don Plusquellic

This interview takes place at a US Conference of Mayors summit on education. Given position and your years of experience in advocating for education reform, what are the cetral lessons you bring and take from Education Summit of Mayors.

I think mayors have to make a long-term commitment to keep working at improving and changing and pushing their school system to change. You have to work as a partner in addressing problems that virtually every community has to one degree or another with our youth, and find ways to keep their interest, to keep them in school, and educate them so they can fill the jobs of the future. I'm not sure we've completely figured that out or at least been able to make the commitment to do what's necessary. But it's an ongoing process, and part of it is because many communities have the tradition of a separate education system. It's a separate entity legally and they look at themselves as separate, and almost as islands within the communities. And that has been an obstacle in my city to getting them to open up, cooperate, and participate in things where we believe that we're trying to do some part of their job for them, like after-school programs.

They have difficulty because the funding system in Ohio is dependent on property taxes, and as a result they don't have the opportunity to grow; it's similar to Prop 13's impact in California. So we've taken it upon ourselves to use city tax dollars to develop programs like after-school programs and do the things that we can to help those low-income, difficult kids to hopefully develop some interest in education, through homework clubs and assistance programs, and mentoring, as well as having a little fun and playing basketball or something recreational that maybe wealthier kids would get in their own family. Test scores have increased at those schools where we have done this, so we know it's helpful. The problem is we have almost battled to get in those schools. Part of it is the union contract, and part of it is just the resistance, for a variety of reasons, to just kind of protect the turf kind of thing. The attitude sometimes is, "Don't tell us what to do, we're the educators." And that has limited how much we could accomplish. And many kids really don't have good parents at home, maybe a parent is dead – they didn't even have to do anything wrong; they just happened to die, like my father did at age 49.

We need to find ways to help those children, especially from those difficult homes, difficult for whatever reason – drug addition, alcohol addiction, a whole lot of other things. Society has a responsibility, and school is the opportunity we have to reach that child so that they can learn and become productive citizens. The way to do that, in my opinion, is to keep them there longer. Extend programs, extend the day in school, and cooperate between the schools and the city government to develop a plan that does jointly what most people logically think should be done rather than battling as opponents over who's going to get credit for it. That's what we've tried to do with our community learning center concept. They must be called community learning centers, must be funded jointly and therefore owned jointly, and that way we have access to them for after-school programs, programs in the summer, weekends, and virtually any other time that the schools aren't using the buildings.

At this Mayors Education Summit you have heard from Mayor Daley of Chicago, Mayor Gonzales of San Jose, and Mayor Fabrizi of Bridgeport, CT, that there is growing interest on the part of mayors to invest in educational reform, to collaborate with school districts, and even, in some cases, to seek and take authority over the schools in order to advance reforms and the concept of community learning centered schools. Is that a fair assessment of what has been discussed by the attending mayors? Could you comment on how far mayors have moved in the direction of governing their school systems?

Well, I think we're a long way from where we need to be. Mayors need to realize something that is clearly right in front of our noses, and that is that the kids that the school system has during the day are our kids in each community. They're our kids. It's really one community. Most of the suburban communities understood that a long time ago. Most of them have open schools and opportunities for people to use recreational facilities, whatever they may be.

In some of the older, larger cities, union contracts have been in place for years, and people said that adults took care of adults and their needs and their jobs, and they forgot about taking care of children. And I think we need to make sure that we remove all the obstacles to working together in partnership. If it means one clearly doing the things in the classroom because mayors don't tend to be experts in education, but we know what makes an overall comprehensive plan to make sure that a child is getting the help they need, and most of us are willing to put those resources in. So I think we're talking about bringing together two organizations that have been structured legally separate to focus to do things that they can't individually do as well.

You spoke to your fellow mayors about both the many possible community uses of their school facilities and about the idea of condominimizing the school buildings so that they might be used productively by the whole community. Could you elaborate?


It's something that I came up with in response after I got basically no response from the schools after many years. I tried to think creatively about how we can accomplish what we need and still honor the schools' contract and avoid grievances. We have several different community centers that are city-owned that are literally across the street from schools, and one sits virtually vacant and unused during the day and then is used in the evening, and the schools are used during the day and sit vacant at night. One of the obstacles is that the schools don't really want us in because they are their buildings and they have all kinds of requirements and legal contracts.

One of the solutions that I came up with was to condo the building. Take the gym, the auditorium, the cafeteria, and maybe four or five classrooms and let it be literally owned by the city as a separately owned part of the building just like any other condo, with certain requirements that the city obviously keeps it clean, makes the repairs, and so that every morning when the schools folks come into that part of the building they have use of it under a lease. I think it's just one of the ways mayors can do creatively what sometimes we can't do by just putting our heads down and doing what seems obvious.

Some of the mayors have indicated at this summit that mayoral involvement in public education is sort of "tag, you're it." The federal government has failed, the school boards have failed, state governments have failed. Mayors are the elected folks of last resort. Is that fair, or are mayors simply the last integrative elected official that can advocate for the whole community rather than just the silo parts of public and neighborhood services?

I think it's both, actually. Traditionally mayors have taken on things when there's been a problem in the community. Mayors and local governments end up addressing the problems because there's no one to pass it down to and no one to blame. For instance, we had a vacant school, which the school board had sold when they closed the school and closed to a private developer who went under and left a boarded-up building where people sold drugs -- and the school board said, "Hey, we sold it to somebody else." There's no way to get that person to ante up, so the city put the money up to tear the school down and create some housing there. Mayors can pick up the ball and run with it and do what's necessary, even if it's not their legal responsibility. We didn't necessarily have authority over it. It was just one of those things that we said to ourselves, there's nobody else to turn to. The schools washed their hands of it. We felt that was unfair, but we could have sat there for ten years and argued about it while the neighborhood suffered. And it's just one little example of what mayors all across the country to do try to address problems. And you know what, if the mayor or the city council can't deal with a problem, there's no one else to send it to.

I wouldn't disagree that the folks in Washington and state capitals are further removed and sometimes less efficient. But it brings up one of the faults I have with Ronald Reagan. He talked about the inefficiency of sending our tax dollars to Washington and only getting a portion back. What he should have said is that they're inefficient in Washington. The most efficient level of government is your local government, so the federal government could cut taxes 4 or 5 percent, send 1 percent to your local government and let them decide how to spend it. You can go to your city council and argue that you want them to spend it on schools or housing or road construction, sewer, keeping the levees solid, and all those sorts of things. Instead Reagan created this horror that all levels of government are inefficient and ineffective. So it created this anti-government and anti-tax movement that we're still trying to dig out from under and will for probably the next ten or 15 years.

One last question. Ohio, maybe not Akron, is involved in a major school construction effort. It has a lot of third parties involved in the facilities agenda, including Knowledgeworks Foundation. Is there much advocacy and planning for community schools, joint use schools that serve as the achors of healthy neighborhoods? Is there some progress being made in that direction?

Yes, I've been in Cincinnati and several other places talking about what we've done in Akron, and a number of folks have started to look at different options for funding their local share, and if that option is some city participation, then requiring that the facilities become community learning centers and, I think, enhancing the opportunity for the community to adopt those schools as more theirs. In Akron only 21 percent of people have kids in the public school system, so getting those folks to be involved in that way, to have programs that adults can go to in the evenings really helps the school in the long term build support.


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