Youngstown school district at an important crossroads

The challenges confronting the Youngstown City School District are enormous. Being rated the worst academically performing system in the state of Ohio, coupled with state-designated fiscal emergency, is a one-two punch that has the community reeling. As a result, the question being asked with greater regularity has to do with the ability of Superintendent Wendy Webb to select the right road to recovery, academically and fiscally.

Dr. Webb, who has led the district since November 2003, has been served notice, in a manner of speaking, that the district must get out of academic and fiscal emergency in the not too distant future or her tenure may come to an end.

To her credit, the superintendent has accepted responsibility for what has occurred and has acknowledged that continue failure is not an option. Such an attitude is important, especially in light of comments made last week by the president of the board of education, Anthony Catale, that “significant progress on the state report card” is the norm by which Webb will be judged.

“We haven’t set a number of standards we want met [for the 2010 report card], but there has to be an improvement, or else we’ll have to move on.”

If members of the board of education are serious about holding Webb responsible for the district’s performance, they should develop a set of standards for her to meet. They have a valuable resource to help them in this task: the state Academic Distress Commission, which is being assigned to the Youngstown City School District.

The state superintendent of education has said that the panel will assist the district in developing a strategy to improve academic performance, but the commission needs to be more.

What works?

The school system has failed because those in charge, starting with the superintendent, have failed to stop the decline. They need to be told what works and what doesn’t.

Thus, Catale and his colleagues should make it clear to the Academic Distress Commission that they expect the same kind of aggressive leadership the district has received from the state Fiscal Oversight Commission.

When the city school system was placed in fiscal emergency by the state in November 2006, the commission came in and laid down the law. It took over the district’s finances, and for the last three years has set the fiscal direction. Spending has been slashed by more than $32 million, mostly through the elimination of 520 jobs.

Now, the board of education has told Webb that additional spending cuts must be instituted so that an emergency tax levy approved in the fall of 2008 and due to expire in about three years will not have to be renewed.

Board member Lock P. Beachum does not agree with the chairman of the state fiscal oversight commission, Roger Nehls, that the five-year forecast makes it almost certain that renewal of the 9.5-mill levy will be required.

Beachum has correctly concluded that the residents of the Youngstown district cannot keep paying the property tax.

Thus, the challenge confronting Dr. Webb and her staff is how to cut spending without crippling academic programs that are necessary for the district’s improvement in the state report card.

The state is making the rules, it must provide the guidance.

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