Cleveland Board of Education meeting features a plethora of public comments
by Chuck Hoven
(Plain Press, January 2022) The Cleveland Board of Education meeting at Garrett Morgan High School on December 14th featured several highlight events: including a proclamation and farewell video in honor of Mayor Frank Jackson’s 16 years of service to the school district; a proclamation of thanks to Dr. Monyka Price, the Mayor’s Chief of Education for her 14 years at the job; Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Eric Gordon’s report of the state of the school district; and a lively public comment session which included comments by students, teachers, schools safety staff, and other community members.
The plethora of public comments were particularly notable because they were punctuated by a comment by CEO Eric Gordon that the Board of Education had decided to not only present in their minutes the questions raised by the public, but also plans to include the Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s and the Board of Education’s responses to the issues raised at the Board of Education meeting. This is a new development welcomed by many of the activists and citizens who have brought questions and concerns to the Board of Education over the years. It signals that the Board of Education and the school district will work to respond to the concerns brought to their attention.
Board of Education Chairperson Anne Bingham began the meeting with the presentation of a proclamation and a playing of video honoring Mayor Frank Jackson for his 16 years of service to the School District. School Board members thanked Jackson for appointing them and for the many accomplishments during his tenure as mayor – accomplishments that included the approval of the Cleveland Plan, support for Pre-4-CLE preschool program, the higher education compact, the creation of the Transformation Alliance, and the Say Yes to Education scholarship program.
In responding to the proclamation and the video, Mayor Jackson spoke to the audience as representatives of the public at the meeting. Mayor Jackson spoke of the public’s support of education during his tenure that included the passage of three operating levies – each with a higher vote margin than the preceding levy, and also the voter passage of a capital levy for the school district. Jackson said, “Everything we have asked for, you have given us… We have a responsibility to give you what you expect from the Board for your children.”
Dr. Monyka Price thanked the Board of Education for a gift of a framed plaque for her new office as a staff member of College Now. She said she would be continuing her journey in the educational space and helping young people to realize their potential.
The presentations to the Mayor and Dr. Price were followed by CEO Eric Gordon’s report to the Board of Education.
CEO Gordon spoke of a severe staffing shortage for all positions in the schools. CEO Gordon explained the term “calamity days” which he said resulted in closing schools on short notice because of the lack of enough staffing and no available substitute teachers. He said such days are coded against the number of days needed for a complete school year. He said they are treated like a snow day. He contrasted the short notice “calamity days” with planned stay at home remote learning which allows more time to give notice to all parties involved. (Editor’s note: On the Friday (December 17) following the Board of Education meeting Cleveland Public Radio reported that 13 Cleveland Metropolitan School District schools were closed with a “calamity day” designation. It was part of a story of the impact of the latest surge in COVID-19 cases in Cuyahoga County.)
To help properly assign available substitutes to buildings, Gordon stressed the need for staff to properly report absences to the Smart Time Express System the district has in place to record absences and redeploy staff to cover positions that are unfilled each day.
Gordon outlined some actions to help the district cope with the trials and tribulations caused by COVID-19. “We need to take care of people – kids, teachers, and school-based staff,” he said. He urged all to be self-aware of their actions and to care for others. Gordon said he has met with the Student Advisory Committee to learn about students’ ideas on why students are missing school so often. Students on the committee believe the number one reason students are missing school is stress. One recommendation that came out of those meetings is that the school district should create a tool kit of resources for schools to use to help individuals cope with stress.
The CMSD is having trouble ordering enough water bottles to supply all the schools, said Gordon. The water fountains in the schools have been shut down due to concerns about spreading COVID-19.
The CEO also told the Board of Education about damage incurred to the Board of Education’s Welcome Center at 1111 Superior when 10 pane glass windows were shot out on the Sunday prior to the board meeting. Gordon said he anticipated some supply chain problems in finding matching replacement windows.
Gordon said efforts to manage COVID-19 included vaccine clinics in the schools.
Highlighting some of the academic accomplishments by students, Gordon spoke of the Cleveland School of the Arts production of a play called Say His Name which is about the killing of an unarmed black man by a white police officer. The play, he said, tackled complex issues from every point of view.
Another highlight Gordon spoke of was the beginning of livestreaming of Senate games which can be viewed at senatelive.com.
Cleveland School Board member Sara Elaqad asked about disability accommodations for students suffering from long term COVID-19. CEO Gordon said, because of privacy issues with medical data, the district doesn’t know why students may be on disability. Gordon says he suspects the stress and increased number of deaths can be indirectly correlated with the manifestation of physical symptoms.
School Board Chair Anne Bingham announced the beginning of the public comment section of the meeting where members of the public address the Board of Education. Each person is allowed up to three minutes to speak.
Joined by fellow classmates at the microphone, a Civics 2.0 student from John F. Kennedy High School, was the first to speak. (Editor’s Note:Civics 2.0 is a free and politically neutral website. It was designed by civically minded educators for the sole purpose of helping people get and stay involved in our democracy.) The student shared several problems that Civics 2.0 students had identified at their school and offered solutions for the Board to undertake. He said students were smoking marijuana in the restroom and this was causing headaches for the teacher in the classroom next door. He suggested increasing the offense from a level one to a level two in the school’s disciplinary manual would help to contain the problem.
Another problem he addressed is the presence of weapons in the school. He suggested increased security at the building would address the problem.
A third issue addressed by the students was the issue of hall walkers. The suggested solution was using a student court to administer justice.
Trash in the hallways was another concern brought to the attention of the Board of Education. The suggested solution was to make trash cans more accessible in the building.
A Civics 2.0 student from Collinwood High School was next up at the microphone. She was also supported by her fellow classmates at the microphone. She testified that “violence in our school and community is very real and scary.” She noted that occasional fights or altercations can escalate and violence inside the school can translate to outside the school. She spoke of multiple fights across the street from the school. She spoke of threats via social media and the involvement of guns. She noted that two people were shot at the gas station next to the school. The student said, “It will take the whole community to fix these problems.” She urged the Board of Education to come to Collinwood to help initiate the solution.
Two students from New Tech High School were up next. The young man and young woman brought up two issues. They called for the district to use permanent bus passes for students rather than depending on shuttle buses to go between schools.
The other issue they addressed was the school district’s policy of banning students from wearing hoodies. They said that most students only have sweatshirts with hoods. They noted the comfort of being warm on cold days and that students could keep the hoods off while in school. They said students were being suspended because of having hoods on their sweatshirts and urged the Board of Education to review the policy and make changes.
A middle school teacher came to the microphone to speak of the shortage of substitute teachers and security guards. The teacher said because of the lack of substitute teachers he had to teach the entire middle school – sixth, seventh and eighth grade students in one large group. He found himself trying to teach three grades of students in multiple subject areas – English Language, Social Studies, Science and Math. He noted that the day after the school board meeting – another teacher is out, and he will have to teach the entire middle school again.
The teacher also called attention to the lack of security. He told the board that without security, lives in the school are being put on the line. Schools face the possibility of getting shot up because there are no security guards. He said to the Board of Education, “You have the power to stop this from happening now.”
A teacher from Campus International School said she was coming to the Board of Education for the third time to bring up the same issues. The teacher said that while her experience at Campus International and that of her students is joyful and adventurous, the same cannot be said for the experience of students and teachers in many other district schools. She said the terrible conditions in some of the schools where her colleagues work “takes the life out of students and staff.” She talked about the failure to maintain clean buildings, lack of substitute teachers and lack of security staff. She urged the Board of Education to get together with the Cleveland Teacher’s Union to develop improved Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) concerning compensation for substitute teachers. She urged using bonuses and federal money to properly compensate security personnel to keep them on the job.
The teacher urged board members to go to visit schools and see for themselves what is happening. She then turned on an Instagram video of a violent confrontation at East Tech High School on her tablet and walked around to show it to Board of Education members. She asked board members “Would you want your child at this school?” She urged the Board of Education to “Please step up and take action.”
Don Freeman asked CEO Eric Gordon if he had conferred with incoming Mayor Justin Bibb. Gordon said a sit-down with Mayor Elect Justin Bibb had to be rescheduled, so he had not yet met one on one with him. Gordon noted that Bibb had conferred with the full Board of Education.
Gene Tracy asked the Board of Education and the Mayor Elect to apologize to the Civic 2.0 students that came to a previous Board of Education meeting with plans to speak to the Board and the Mayor Elect directly. Tracy said he witnessed the sad faces of the three students that were ready to speak to the Mayor Elect and the Board of Education when, after a number of adults spoke, the Mayor Elect got up to leave before the students’ time to speak.
Tracy also urged the Board of Education to find classroom help for the teachers and needed security help. He urged the use of federal funds and Memorandums of Understanding with the Cleveland Teachers Union to rectify the current situation.
Tracy reminded CEO Gordon of his promise to talk to the Mayor Elect about restoring the full $2 million per year promised by the City of Cleveland to fund after school programs in compensation for the tax exemption given to the Cleveland Browns’ Stadium.
Tracy then urged the Board of Education to create a school dedicated to preparing students to address climate change. He cited the changes in the climate that increased the intensity of storms, forest fires and potentially would unlock diseases long dormant beneath the frozen tundra.
Elizabeth Coles said she was proud of the students that spoke to the Board of Education that evening. She also said she was proud of the Board of Education members because she could hear in their language their depth of concern for children.
Coles then urged the Board of Education to bring back its committees so they can engage with the public and work to form policy for the school district. She urged the students in attendance and other citizens to become members of the Citizen Advisory Council, help form corporate partnerships for the school district, volunteer at the schools and attend school board meetings. She urged activism with the aim of creating written policy changes for the school district.
Coles also challenged the Board of Education to recognize academic achievement of individual students at its monthly meetings.
Greg Leimkuehler, whose family owns Leimkuehler Incorporated at 4625 Detroit Avenue, right across the street from the new Garrett Morgan High School Campus, came to speak about problems on Detroit Avenue. He said school buses loading and unloading on Detroit Avenue are blocking all the lanes on the street. Parents picking up and dropping off students are parking in bike lanes and doing U-turns in front of his office. Parents are also parking in the handicapped spaces in front of his office reserved for patients coming to the company to have their prosthetic and orthotic needs addressed.
Leimkuehler stressed he has had no problems with the students at the school, but it is the parents and the location chosen for the buses that cause problems. He said he is especially concerned that someone is going to get hit by cars doing U-turns on Detroit Avenue. Leimkuehler urged the school district to have the buses and parents go to the rear of the building to pick up and drop off students and not use Detroit Avenue, a main thoroughfare.
A citizen who works in safety and security said she was aware of the shortage of security staff in the Cleveland Municipal School District. She said security personnel are charged with responding to emergencies, weapons being brought into schools and multiple fights. She said security staff serve as surrogate moms, dads, counselors, and everything in between. Paying security officers only $25,000 a year is a slap in the face, she said. She urged the CMSD Board to step up and pay for security. She asked, why would people engage in such a demanding security job, when they could flip burgers for the same wages?