Changes to beloved magnet school and threat to take back arts center have Clifton residents angry

CINCINNATI – A series of conflicts about enrollment at Fairview-Clifton German Language School and the possible district takeover of the Clifton Cultural Arts Center have soured relations between some parents and Cincinnati Public Schools.

Three successive issues have raised tensions in Clifton, one of Cincinnati's most affluent neighborhoods and one that is normally very supportive of public education:

  • In August, the district stopped reserving any spots on a first come, first served basis for its magnet schools, taking away what nearby parents saw as a sure-fire way to get their children into the school by camping out to reserve a spot. Months later, the board added two kindergarten classrooms despite concerns of overcrowding.
  • In December, the board voted to create a satellite preschool at the old Vine Street Elementary -- dubbed Rising Stars Academy -- in Over-the-Rhine, including up to five classrooms of preschool students there who would be guaranteed admission to Fairview-Clifton's kindergarten.
  • Ongoing negotiations to accommodate the Fairview-Clifton expansion by CPS leasing some classrooms at the Clifton Cultural Arts Center (CCAC) have deteriorated to the point where CPS is openly discussing revoking the arts center lease and taking back the whole building, which the district owns.

The rancor is happening as CPS is considering a new school levy request for November, straining support in a neighborhood that is usually a reliable levy proponent.

Angry Parents

Sally O'Callaghan, the community representative on Fairview-Clifton's Local School Decision-Making Committee, has sent four children to CPS schools, but is questioning her commitment to a new school levy after the district increased the size of the kindergarten class by about 50 students while other magnet schools have extra capacity.

"They should know that when they're asking for money and they seem to be spending it recklessly that's not a good combination," O'Callaghan said.

The enrollment changes occurred despite the passionate objections of some active parents, and they fear that the arts center negotiations are going to end badly for them as well.

"There is a sense that that same negotiating pattern has once again repeated," said Dr. Jeff Craven, a Clifton resident with two children attending Fairview-Clifton. "Yes, (CPS officials) say, 'we want to find a solution.' But when one is proposed, it's summarily dismissed. It's just a really hard-nosed, unwilling-to-compromise negotiating strategy."

School Board Members Bent on Equal Access

On the other side of the negotiating table, Ericka Copeland-Dansby, president of the board of education, said the expansion at Fairview-Clifton is all about ensuring equal access to quality schools for children from every neighborhood and economic circumstance.

 

Ericka Copeland-Dansby

 

The school board was poised Monday to pass its first-ever policy codifying its commitment to equity for students throughout the district. 

"Hopefully the public can see our desire to look at everything through an equity lens," she said. "Folks have to understand that the district is growing by leaps and bounds, and that's a good problem to have."

The camp outs, which weren't an option for many single-parent families or those who couldn't take off work, and a 2007 Supreme Court decision that barred school districts from setting aside seats by race, resulted in Fairview-Clifton growing steadily less diverse.

A WCPO analysis in January found Fairview-Clifton's enrollment was 54 percent white and 32.5 percent black in 2007. By 2015, white students made up 64.7 percent of enrollment and the black percentage dwindled to 22.3 percent.

That lack of opportunity for low-income or families of color was a major driver of CPS's decision to expand the lottery.

O'Callaghan said Fairview-Clifton parents wanted to ensure that the lottery change was coupled with a program to ensure that families who entered the lottery were familiar with the unique model at the school of teaching German throughout the K-6 program.

She said parents set up a system that would have offered school tours on weekends and weeknights, with volunteers providing transportation, for prospective families. But the idea was rejected by CPS.

"We were really summarily dismissed. They had a number of reasons why it wouldn't work," O'Callaghan said.

Copeland-Dansby rejects the characterization that CPS administrators or school board members are unwilling to negotiate. She cites the timeline provided by Daniel Hoying, CPS's lead attorney, of negotiations with the arts center. The timeline indicates changes to CPS's offer to share space in response to concerns expressed by the arts center board.

Barbara Sferra, treasurer of the arts center board, emphasized the need for protecting the millions of dollars that have been invested in remodeling the arts center building, which was formerly the Clifton Elementary School.

"Our concern is that we've taken something that CPS has discarded and we have turned that into a very viable education and community center which complements quality education at Fairview-Clifton. And I don't want to see CPS take that away," Sferra said.

Despite the disagreement, Sferra said the arts center board does not want to be perceived as threatening a new school levy.

"We do not want to be perceived as trying to jeopardize the levy. We're very much for quality public education," she said.

Sferra said she would not let the outcome of the negotiation affect her support of a tax levy, but it will affect her decision on who to vote for on the school board.

"Their decision would impact my ability to vote for them," she said. 

Best-case Outcome

O'Callaghan hopes that CPS takes heed of the concern of parents about stretching Fairview-Clifton's resources too thin. She wants the board to reduce the size of kindergarten classes back to 125 beginning in fall 2017 since the decision has already been made for this fall.

And she wants to sever the tie between preschool classes at the old Vine Street Elementary and Clifton-Fairview.

Copeland-Dansby attended a Clifton Town Meeting session on April 4 where the arts center issue was discussed, and she left the meeting impressed by the commitment of parents who attended.

"We're committed as a district to find a solution to continue the rich tradition of excellence at Fairview-Clifton," she said. "There were some initial negotiations that broke down over time, and I've urged our administration to be more collaborative and open. We're all passionate about our kids and our community."

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