CPS levy would cut deficit, fund major preschool expansion

Plan would raise $48M a year for 5 years

CINCINNATI — Call it the price of success.

The Cincinnati Public Schools Board of Education at its Monday meeting unanimously approved putting a new levy on the November ballot. If approved by voters, the measure would raise $48 million a year for five years — $240 million in all.

In a symbolic act of solidarity, all seven board members took turns reading paragraphs from the resolution.

“This is a plan for growth,” said board Vice President Melanie Bates in comments just before the vote.

“It’s a community-driven levy,” said Eve Bolton, adding that the initiatives the levy would fund were those most sought by the public.

About two-thirds of the money the levy would generate is needed to offset expenses from a situation rare in urban school districts: rising enrollment. From its low point in the 2011-12 school year, CPS’s student population is up almost 5.5 percent this school year. It’s expected to jump another 2.9 percent next year, to 35,112, and an average of 1 percent for the next five years.

Those new students are expensive, though. They need teachers, materials like books and computers, and even building space CPS doesn’t have. The new money would be combined with at least $15 million a year in savings to head off annual deficits that otherwise are predicted to reach $60 million by fiscal 2021.

Many of the savings were determined by a financial analysis carried out by consultants Parthenon-EY over 12 weeks earlier this year.

The rest, about $15 million per year, would be used to expand access to preschool throughout the city. It’s a program worked out in partnership with Cincinnati Preschool Promise, an initiative dedicated to providing local children two years of high-quality, affordable preschool. The money would subsidize the cost of preschool to the city’s most needy children.

Preschool Promise representatives cheered at the levy proposal’s unanimous passage.

If the levy passes, the plan has the potential to put Cincinnati at the forefront of early childhood education.

“We would be the first city in the U.S. to provide preschool to all 3- and 4-year-olds,” said Stephanie Byrd, executive director in Cincinnati of Success by 6. A national United Way strategy in more than 350 cities across the country, Success by 6 is focused on improving school readiness. She called the joint effort with CPS “an historic achievement.”

Success by 6 is part of the Preschool Promise consortium.

The $15 million annual investment is, in fact, a compromise. Preschool Promise had considered proposing its own issue — a hike in the city’s payroll tax — to fund universal preschool education. That idea faced concerns from the Tri-State’s business community that higher taxes would make it more difficult for Downtown businesses to recruit quality workers. Further, the prospect of having two education tax issues on the same ballot was deemed too risky.

As a single proposal, the levy now will enjoy the full support of Preschool Promise’s constituent groups. That list includes Leadership Cincinnati, the Urban League, the United Way of Greater Cincinnati, the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, the Haile/U.S. Bank Foundation and Crossroads Community Church. Preschool Promise and CPS will tout the levy’s potential to improve education, beginning with quality, affordable preschool that will boost kindergarten readiness, especially among children from low-income families.

Business is also likely to support the effort because it’s an economic development issue, said Byrd. “Working families need access to quality preschool. If we’re focused on ending poverty, preschool is critical to (low-income children) eventually going to work.”

No Action on Arts Center

Another challenge of growing enrollment has put the school district at odds with a neighborhood that is traditionally one of its strongest supporters. The district wants to create a new, neighborhood school to serve Clifton, CUF and Spring Grove Village, but it is considering housing it in the former Clifton school that is now the Clifton Cultural Arts Center.

CPS still owns the building but has signed a long-term lease to the arts center. Under the most extreme scenario, the arts center’s lease would be canceled and the historic structure would be renovated as a school. Other plans include using just a small number of classrooms in the old school.

Since word of the plan surfaced, arts center supporters have turned out wearing red to school board meetings and voicing their opposition to the district’s reclaiming the building. Many believed Monday’s meeting would bring a decision because the arts center’s lease requires one year’s notice for cancelation, and that leaves little leeway in planning for the 2017-18 school year.

CCAC supporters turned out again Monday, but board President Ericka Copeland-Dansby defused some potential hostility by declaring before the public comment portion of the meeting that the board would take no immediate action. Instead, she said, the district will engage those with a stake in the outcome through a series of meetings in June. Those include:

  • Parents of potential students of a new neighborhood school
  • Affected community councils
  • CCAC officials and backers

Nevertheless, the first three speakers urged the board not to act unilaterally on the building’s future. Eric Urbas, president of Clifton Town Meeting, read a joint letter from his council, and the CUF and Spring Grove Village councils. The letter urged delaying any action until after November’s levy vote. It also pledged the groups’ help and support to find a solution to the district’s space woes — so long as it is mutually acceptable.

Peter Huttinger, Spring Grove Village’s community council president, said a neighborhood school would be undoubtedly be a benefit to his neighborhood but that its creation needs to be on terms the residents of the communities it would serve approve.

The 2016 valedictorians and salutatorians from Cincinnati Public Schools high schools were honored Monday, May 23, at the district's school board meeting. (Thomas Consolo for WCPO)

Also…

In other business Monday, the school board:

  • Voted to end suspension and a discipline option for students in kindergarten through third grade.
  • Passed revised application priorities for magnet schools (such as parents who have another child already in the school).
  • Tabled for minor rewording two measures on preschool and kindergarten entrance requirements.
  • Before official business, the board honored the valedictorians and salutatorians of its 14 high schools’ class of 2016. The group included two graduates who had emigrated from Africa — one from Eritrea and one from Ivory Coast. It was also a good night for the University of Cincinnati: At least 14 of CPS’s top grads will be Bearcats in the fall.

Follow Thomas Consolo on Twitter: @tconsolo_news.

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