Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Search for a CEO: CMSD Style

The room was nearly empty at 6:30 when I arrived at the community meeting. The Jergens Manufacturing Company located in the Collinwood Yards is very easy to spot from the Shoreway, but apparently a little tricky to find if one is not familiar with the neighborhood. Eventually the search comittee, CMSD administrators, and several Board of Education members came in and introduced themselves, along with two other teachers, a woman who was filming the event, and a journalist.

Where were the community members who were supposed to be giving their input?

The meeting finally began, about twenty minutes late with not quite twenty people in the room, when the facilitator, who was coming from Chicago, arrived. Only one of the people present was a parent, and even she was a school employee.

The first question that was asked of the group was "What does the district need?". The immediate answer, of course was "Money!". Nothing like stating the obvious.

I raised my hand and asked , "Where are the community members? Where is the neighborhood? Where are the voters? Why aren't they here?"

"Well, we publicized the event. We sent flyers home with the kids. Apparently people just aren't interested."

"Hmmm..." I said. "Maybe it would be a good idea to find out why. Why don't Clevelanders come to these forums? Is because they don't know about them, or do they feel their voices won't be heard? Do they feel their opinions don't really matter, and the meetings are just a formality? The disconnect between the school district and the community is a glaring issue, evidenced by lack of voter turn out and the failure of the past two levys. Addressing this problem should be a priority for the new CEO."

Newly re-appointed board member Shirley Hawk spoke, "Adelphia cable has money for a public access cable channel dedicated to the Cleveland schools. I want to know why it is no longer being used. In the past they broadcast school board meetings and good news about the schools."

CMSD administrator Julian Bond replied that the monies for communication were drastically reduced over the past two years with the massive district budget cuts. The sudden absence of good news from the district and lack of communication with the residents seemed to coincide with the decline in Barbara Byrd Bennett's popularity. Since good news doesn't sell, the major media news stories focused on the district's problems and scandels.
A lot of the ensuing discussion focused on the community's access to technology, why the district hasn't taken advantage of it, and what needs to be addressed in the future.

The lone parent sat silent for most of the meeting, but when she finally spoke up, she vented her frustrations. Her complaints focused on teachers and administrators who didn't seem to care about kids or parents. The employees who came across as selfishly only interested in collecting a paycheck and doing as little as possible to earn it. A recent newcomer to Cleveland from Savannah, she complained about the black hole of the district voice mail system, and the general public's inability to find anyone who could answer a question in a reasonable period of time. She predicted the exodus of more children from the Cleveland schools into parochial and charter schools for precisely that reason.

The meeting concluded at 8:00.
My hope is that this was not simply a sham forum to appease a mandate for public input, that someone will pay attention to the concerns that were expressed. Wouldn't it be nice if a new mayor and a new district CEO would usher in a new era of communication?


Daniella said...


Reading your post tonight made me feel guilty about not going to the meeting and I have no kids in the Cleveland School District. Why are the parents so apathic? Is it economic whereby they work two jobs and are unabled to come or is it just plain giving up, feeling that one does not matter.

Excellent well written sumary.

Norm Roulet said...

I attended two of the meetings - at the first, in Mt. Pleasant, there were probably 25-30 "citizens" - I don't know how many were parents, etc. At the second meeting, in Arbor Park (10:30 AM on a Saturday), there were only a dozen citizens, of whom I know several were parents. When I asked the facilitator why he thought attendance was so low, he felt the week before Thanksgiving is a tough time to get people's attention. I know the events were pretty well publicised... they've been in the PD, flyers went out, and we provided the search committee with a website to support public participation. That said, I can add I sent emails to over 1,000 "friends of the community" - area activists, entrepreneurs, foundation types, academics, non-profiteers, etc. - asking them to visit the website established to promote the citizen meetings and gather feedback from the community, where citizens may submit a survey about their concerns for this CEO search. As you saw, none of them bothered to attend the meetings (although 100s of parents, students, school staff and other citizens have filled out surveys and gotten involved). This is not just about getting parents to show concern but about getting everyone in NEO who is concerned to participate in the process. It's not too late - the search site is at http://schoolceosearch.net, where anyone can join the search mailing list and fill out a survey offering the search committee insight, and there are two more community meetings coming up in early December.

John Colm said...

Mary Beth: as a teacher in the schools, don't you have contact with parents? How many did you call to encourage to participate in any of the sessions? Organize!

marybeth said...


Did I know beforehand that so few people (parents or teachers)would attend? No. How could I?
What I did do after my experience? Blog about it.
I suppose if I was a bit more energetic in the weeks before the forums, I could have launched a volunteer campaign to bring the community to these meetings. However, I assumed the folks from Chicago who were hired by the school board to hold the forums, and those on the search committee, would be making those efforts. I was not on the committeee John.

What I did do after I posted this piece, was ask several of the teachers at Max Hayes, who teach classes in the computer labs, to have their students participate in the online CEO survey, so that they might have input in the selection process. I was told, a few weeks later, that Max Hayes did indeed have a very good number of respondents.