Mayors expanding their roles in schools
At a national forum, more and more mayors said they are getting more involved in improving their cities' public schools.
By CARRIE WEIMAR
Published April 12, 2006
ST. PETERSBURG - The locations were different but the problems the same: overcrowded schools filled with failing students.
Frustrated by the lack of progress, the mayors of several cities across the country have opted to step out of their traditional roles and help the public school systems, an area typically left to school boards and superintendents.
On Monday and Tuesday, mayors and education officials from as far away as California and New Mexico met at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort for the Mayors' Leadership Forum on Improving Public Schools, sponsored by the National League of Cities.
It was billed as an opportunity for top elected officials to compare notes and discuss the challenges facing urban school districts.
"As leaders of our cities, we can no longer stand back and hope that others will fix the schools," said St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker.
Baker and his colleagues are part of a growing trend over the past five years toward more city leadership in education, said Clifford Johnson, executive director for the league's Institute for Youth, Education and Families.
"There are very few mayors in the country now who feel they cannot be involved in the quality of their public schools," Johnson said. "It's too central to the future of their cities."
In some cases, help was welcomed. But several mayors said they were lambasted for overstepping their boundaries.
Miami Mayor Manuel Diaz said he got an odd reaction from other candidates when he campaigned on education reform.
"They would all look at me kind of funny," Diaz said. "In fact, they would criticize me at debates and call me a demagogue."
Several mayors described relationships with school boards that were strained at best.
Don Plusquellic, mayor of Akron, Ohio, compared his administration's dealings with the local school board to a shotgun wedding.
"We've got a contract and we're trying to make it work," Plusquellic said.
He also was critical of school superintendents, whom he said were too quick to leave their jobs when the going gets rocky.
"The first thing they do when they take a new job is update their resumes and start circulating it around," Plusquellic said.
Jane Gallucci, a Pinellas County School Board member who was recently elected president of the National School Boards Association, said most school boards are grateful for any assistance.
"I believe education needs all the partners it can get," Gallucci said in an interview. "If mayors can work collaboratively with the school systems, I'm all for the partnerships."
The problem, she said, is when mayors try to take over governance of public schools.
"You can't do it alone," Gallucci said. "You need the school boards on board. You need the teachers' unions on board. It needs to be a collaboration."
Baker, who has made schools a top priority since taking office in 2001, is considered a pioneer in education, Johnson said. The conference was held in St. Petersburg largely due to Baker's leadership, he said.
"We've been very impressed by the creative steps he's taken here in St. Petersburg to try to make a difference in the quality of public schools," Johnson said.
Baker told the crowd about the Doorways scholarship program he promotes in Pinellas County, which offers college scholarships to low-income children.
He also discussed his Mayor's Mentors & More, which matches corporate sponsors with struggling schools.
During a panel discussion Tuesday, others described various approaches to the problem.
Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson successfully lobbied the state legislature to give him the authority to create charter schools. Students at the new schools have seen standardized test scores rise by 25 percent over the past two years, compared with a .7 percent increase at other city schools, Peterson said.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett chronicled his struggle against the expansion of a voucher program in his city, which he says costs taxpayers nearly $60-million a year.
Plusquellic, who forged a relationship with the school board after promising them a significant chunk of annual tax revenue, said more mayors need to use their bully pulpit to help the public education system. Everything from the crime rate to economic development depends on healthy schools, he said.
"We're the ones who are elected," Plusquellic said. "The public trusts us to make the tough decisions that the school boards are reluctant to do."
Carrie Weimar can be reached at 727 892-2273 or firstname.lastname@example.org
[Last modified April 12, 2006, 01:06:10]
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