Six years ago, the sales pitch was hard to resist. East High's gym roof had collapsed, and school officials went into Chicken Little mode. They insisted that every school in the district needed fixing, and there was no better time to do it. The state was offering free money. If Cleveland taxpayers ponied up $335 million, Columbus would match it with about a half-billion.
"Every single school in every one of our neighborhoods will benefit," promised schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett. "Not one school is slated to be closed."
The civic elite joined the crusade, but they were facing an uphill fight. The district had an impressive history of squandering money. Residents weren't particularly keen on being ripped off again.
So school officials made another promise:They would create an independent Bond Accountability Commission, stacked with venerable civic leaders, to make sure not a single penny was wasted. "I've got all the confidence in the world that every dime is going to where it's supposed to," U.S. Senator George Voinovich said at the time.
Miraculously, the levy passed.
So began a new chapter of incompetence and broken promises.
It would soon become apparent that Byrd-Bennett had failed to do even the most basic homework. She had only a faint idea of how much the reconstruction plan would cost. When the final estimate came in, it was nearly double the price she'd sold to voters. Stunningly, she'd also failed to factor inflation into the 12-year project.
Now the district was charged with rehabbing and rebuilding scores of schools, though it didn't have the money -- or even the students to fill them. Byrd-Bennett had also neglected to factor in the rapid decline in enrollment, as families fled to the suburbs and charter schools.
And the errors kept coming.
First, the CEO placed Nick Jackson, the mayor's brother, in charge of drafting a master plan. But the career patronage appointee was clearly in over his head. His only previous construction experience had been bungling a renovation project at the West Side Market.
So Byrd-Bennett was forced to spend even more to retain some semblance of competence. Over the next four years, Heery International would be paid $6.4 million as a consultant on the project, helping to hire architects, engineers, and contractors, while generally managing the job. Yet chaos reigned unabated.
Seeing an easy mark, contractors routinely submitted millions of dollars in extra claims. The renovation of John Hay High School, for example, fell two years behind schedule and several million over budget.
Meanwhile, the civic leaders who backed the plan quickly disappeared. The Bond Accountability Commission attempted to hold meetings, but Byrd-Bennett stonewalled their requests for information, and the panel collapsed ["Missing: $1.5 Billion," May 24, 2006].
Finally, in February of last year, Byrd-Bennett stepped down. For the next few months, her underlings tried to look busy until the mayor found a replacement. But they never bothered to submit a revised construction plan to the state. The project was officially rudderless.
Enter Eugene Sanders. When the new CEO arrived from Toledo last July, he inherited more than Byrd-Bennett's hidden audits and fake attendance numbers. He was now stuck with a massive construction project riddled with failure.
Following the levy's passage, the district's enrollment hemorrhaged, falling from 77,000 to 54,000. By 2015, there are projected to be just 41,000 kids left. The original project had called for rebuilding all 111 schools. But soon there won't be enough children to fill them.
Sanders knew he would have to scale back the plans. But he seemed to understand that it would be a PR nightmare.
Last November, aides drafted a plan that would eliminate 33 schools from the construction schedule. They would either be closed, consolidated with other schools, not renovated, or rebuilt solely on the local dime. Popular institutions like Tremont Elementary and Collinwood CompuTech were on the list. But Sanders never released the plan to the public.
One of the new schools scheduled for elimination was a high school slated to relieve overcrowding at John Marshall on the West Side. Byrd-Bennett had already spent $4.5 million buying land and designing plans for the project. But Sanders realized there were no longer enough kids to justify it.
Unfortunately, John Marshall parents had been told for years that their school would have to wait for renovations until the relief school had been built. Now that it's been axed, they still can't get any answers about John Marshall. According to the November plan, renovations are slated to start next year, yet district officials admit they aren't sure about that anymore.
"Working with the district was a waste of our time," says Sharon DeCarlo, who has two children at the school and served on a community team that was supposed to help draft renovation plans.
Her group took pictures of broken windows and complained about mold and heat problems. Yet it got them nowhere. She says Nick Jackson called them "antagonistic" and ignored their requests for information. Last week, DeCarlo couldn't even get district officials to return her phone calls.
Over in Slavic Village, Councilman Tony Brancatelli was also kept in the dark about the fate of his ward's only high school. South High was among those quietly removed from construction plans last November. Yet no one informed him. All he knows is that millions of dollars have been spent cleaning up a former industrial site to build a football field, a track, and basketball courts. The new athletic complex seems destined to be built -- whether South High is fixed or even closed.
Meanwhile, Councilman Zack Reed fumed as the district shut down three elementary schools in his Mount Pleasant ward. Until he went to a school board meeting last summer, he didn't even know that two of the schools, Charles Dickens and Robert Jamison, were going to be rebuilt on other sites. That leaves him to contend with more shuttered, crumbling buildings in an already struggling neighborhood.
"They changed in the middle of the stream and didn't even communicate with us," he says.
Now, district officials are preparing to submit a revised plan to the state. They're also preparing for the possibility of a new levy. Jim Darr, administrator of the recently revived Bond Accountability Commission, estimates that at least $100 million might be needed to finish the construction plan, even if 30-some schools are removed. He adds, in a recent report, that "many of these schools are likely to be demolished" to preserve state funding for others.
District Chief Operating Officer Dan Burns says they're still crunching numbers, and might be able to extend the previous bond issue to cover the shortfall, without raising taxes. He also insists that no final decisions have been made on which schools will be closed or scratched from the plan.
"It's a little premature," he says. "Those recommendations have not come to me yet."
Plus, he cautions that even if 30 schools get knocked off the list this year, some could come back in the future, if Sanders' grand plans to raise academic standards succeed. The district is now concentrating on rebuilding elementary schools, believing they offer the best chance to increase enrollment.
Yet after six years of broken promises, it will take effort to find parents who share that optimism. "They want to come back to us for more money?" asks DeCarlo. "Are they kidding?"
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