On Development: Time travel shows how CCS history repeats itself

The following is a sample column Brian Williams provided with his application to become a Columbus Dispatch Metro columnist in 1997. This is the first time it has seen the light of day.
Franklinton school photographed in 2012
Franklinton school photographed in 2012Aaron Turner for Wikimedia Commons

(Editor's Note: Entering into the 1996-97 school year, the Columbus school district had just reinstated neighborhood schools following almost two decades of busing for greater racial balance under a federal court decree. In those years, district enrollment dropped significantly, and a 1996 bond issue was approved by voters after a campaign in which the school board promised to cut costs and close schools. But many voters did not want their schools closed, and the board and administration pressed pause on the planned closings.)

“Read my lips: We will close schools in 1997.”

Actually, no Columbus school board member used quite those words in the campaign for a $30 million bond issue last fall, but that was the general message.

Like George Bush’s 1988 “no new taxes” promise, however, the school board’s pledge to close some schools this year made good politics but debatable policy.

It’s too soon to foresee the effects of the decision to renege on closing seven schools, but there’s an opportunity for parents to choose neighborhood schools over private schools. And there’s an opportunity to debate a more comprehensive look at Columbus schools and their role in the community.

“It’s something I feel strongly about,” School Board Member Robert Teater said. Even before the decision to postpone closings, he said, the board’s strategic plan mulled the idea of schools as centers that hold neighborhoods together.

“We want to encourage people to work with the entire community,” he said, calling schools “nerve centers” for community activities, adult continuing education, parks, and playgrounds.

That might mean partnerships with other government agencies, non-profit groups and private businesses, and could bring in revenue as school space is rented to them.

Many would agree that Columbus schools – and government in general – need to be more business-like. But in what way? Businesses must watch the bottom line, but also must focus on customer service and growth. Sometimes those goals clash. The bottom line tells you to shrink and be more efficient. But shrinking chases away current and potential customers.

Public schools across the country have many challenges, and winning public confidence is one of the most important. While the decision to delay school closings surely shook that confidence among some voters, Columbus schools made a great stride toward meeting the challenge this year with a return to neighborhood schools.

For decades, parents – customers of the school district – were dissatisfied for a variety of reasons and took their business elsewhere. They moved to suburbs, enrolled their kids in private schools, or home-schooled them. (Editor’s Note: This was prior to the advent of charter schools in Ohio.) Thousands of people choose to live in the Columbus school district but make other arrangements for their kids’ education.

Neighborhood schools might be one way to win their confidence and lure them back to public schools. Closing buildings too soon after reinstating neighborhood schools does not allow the market to decide which schools are most desirable.

How do you define the problem? Too many schools, or not enough students?

“Probably a bit of both,” Teater said.

This wave of urban school closings and consolidation today echoes rural district consolidations in past decades. Research, Teater said, “indicates we depersonalize schools and people and parents of kids at those schools. It made education kind of a mechanical thing, rather than a personalized thing.”

One might argue that Columbus needs to keep all those schools open – and maybe even reopen a few that closed years ago – to give all neighborhoods an identity and give parents in those neighborhoods the peace of mind of knowing their kids can walk safely to a nearby, uncrowded public school and get a decent public education.

Teater does not make that argument but believes more is at stake than just enrollment and capacity.

“It’s hard to justify 144 schools and half the enrollment we had 20 years ago,” he said. “But society has changed a lot in those years.” Hence, his vision of schools as community centers.

Teater, with a long background in agriculture and natural resources, said the erosion of cities is like the erosion of soil 60 years ago. 

“But if you educate children and make cities more livable, people won’t leave cities,” he said.

He’s optimistic. This year, Columbus saw a small increase in enrollment – the first in 20 years. And new homes being built in the district (though still small in number) are on the rise.

In his five years on the board, Teater said, he’s seen the district improve from a time of “non-performance” marked by “community dissociation and a lack of parental involvement.”

Today, the emotion of hundreds of parents showing up at meetings to defend their neighborhood schools could be a sign of hope for the district.

“They’re so emotionally involved in the education of their children,” Teater said. “It’s not that we solved all the problems, but that we got people involved. This is healthy for public education.”

Brian Williams is a consultant and freelance writer. A former Columbus Dispatch reporter, he is retired from the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission.

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