Community pushes back on school closings amid leaked memo drama

School board members offered contradicting statements on Tuesday about the genesis of a leaked document that could lead Columbus City Schools to hit pause on the building closure process.
School board member Brandon Simmons talks to reporters on Tuesday, May 21
School board member Brandon Simmons talks to reporters on Tuesday, May 21Christy Williams

Columbus City Schools staff members, parents, students and community advocates continue to urge the school board to delay building closure decisions until further notice. And due to the actions of at least one CCS school board member, their demands may likely be met. 

A CCS board meeting began on Tuesday with a statement from Board President Christina Vera, who accused fellow board member Brandon Simmons of sole responsibility for a leaked memo, saying it was created independently of the board and does not reflect the board’s position. Titled “Taking Control of the Task Force Narrative,” the document champions the implementation of divisive strategies meant to undermine building closure opponents. (The full memo can be viewed here.) 

A few tactics listed in the memo include: 

  • “Driving a wedge” between certified and classified employees using “racial dynamics”

  • Rearranging the speaking order at events to favor building closure supporters

  • Changing the location of board meetings last minute

As Vera was about to make her statement, Simmons invited members of the press outside for an impromptu press conference. Simmons then contradicted Vera’s statement, claiming without evidence that the memo was a group effort that included board members and other stakeholders. He also said the leaked memo was an early draft of the document, and that multiple versions existed. “I just want to reiterate that I, we are all collectively, because it was a true collaboration, we are all very sorry that this is the version of the document our community is seeing. We are all very sorry,” Simmons said. 

The Columbus Education Justice Coalition (CEJC) is calling for the immediate resignation of Simmons.

“This kind of conduct is not befitting of a public official,” said Stuart McIntyre, a steering committee member of the CEJC. “In his strategy memo, he explicitly lays out divide-and-conquer tactics to silence the voices of parents, community members and educators on the most important issues that have been made in the district in decades. This is yet another example of why we need to press pause on the school closing and consolidation conversation and fully engage the community.”

The district announced that a pair of Community Facilities Task Force engagement sessions initially scheduled for this week have both been postponed “in light of recent events with the Board of Education.” It is unclear whether the postponements are related to the leaked memo. 

The board did continue business as usual following a lengthy executive session, with both supporters and opponents of building closures delivering public statements. Deepa Ganschinietz, a first-grade teacher at Cranbrook Elementary, spoke about how the closures will negatively impact English Language Learners in the district. A majority of the students at Cranbrook are English Learners (62 percent), and the school was recommended for closure by the Task Force. 

“Of the elementary schools on this closure list, four of the schools have higher than 50 percent English Learners,” said Ganschinietz, who was Ohio’s Teacher of the Year in 2005. “And 11 of the schools have more than 100 English Learners.”

Ganschinietz also said that many of the parents at Cranbrook do not speak English, highlighting the inequity in a process that doesn’t allow them to voice their opinions on the closing of their children’s school. She urged the board to pause decisions so non-English speaking families had a fair opportunity to speak out for their students. 

Siebert Elementary staff, students and parents also attended the board meeting to oppose the closing of their building. “I was shocked, because Siebert has a very high record of success in multiple dimensions,” said Anna Gawboy, a parent of a Siebert student. “It is overcrowded because parents choose to send their kids there, and under the logic of school choice, an overfilled school means that it’s doing something right.” 

Gawboy also urged the board to pause on school closing and consolidation decisions. 

“I have been to two community engagement forums, and there have been very good questions that have been asked by parents, caregivers and from the community,” Gawboy said. “My understanding is that they haven’t begun to envision what any of these school closures look like from a practical standpoint in terms of program continuity. I think we are all sort of aware that something needs to change given the number of buildings and the number of students. However, this approach is not the way to do it.”

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