Activist advises school board to follow Cleveland Public Library example
by Chuck Hoven
(Plain Press, May 2006) At a special Board of Education Meeting on March 29th, veteran community activist Elisabeth Coles offered the Board of Education of the Cleveland Municipal School District some advice on how to reconstitute the Bond Accountability Commission. Coles comments came as the Board of Education wrestled with how to meet a promise given to voters that a Bond Accountability Commission would oversee the Cleveland Municipal School District’s $1.5 billion facilities plan.
Coles, who over the years held top leadership positions in the school district’s parent organizations, shared her experience serving on a committee overseeing the Cleveland Public Library’s $100 million capital plan. The library’s plan, she said, came in under budget and the library system was able to add two new libraries in the city as a result of the savings.
The library committee “hired nobody,” said Coles. She suggested the Board of Education “look at who you already pay to do your work.” She said the construction manager the board now pays to oversee each building should be the board’s liaison to the Bond Accountability Commission.
Declining student population in the school district, said Coles, offers the Board of Education an opportunity to revisit its facilities plan. “The community is not pressuring you to do something today. They are pressuring you to do something right,” said Coles. She noted that the library system’s plan was “clear, evident and so wide open that the public didn’t need to come to meetings.” Coles noted the size of the crowd at the board meeting and said “the room is full when the public is disgruntled.”
Coles advised the board to look at the how population changes will change the dollars and cents needs of the facilities plan. In doing this, she said the Board of Education should look to existing Cleveland Municipal School District employees and ask them to provide the board with the information it needs. She said this process involves finding out, “Who do you pay that should be telling you what is going on.”
The Board of Education should make use of the Cleveland Municipal School District’s legal staff to help both in reconstituting the Bond Accountability Commission and in creating contracts that protect the interests of the school system during the building and repair process, suggested Coles.
Coles said the Board of Education should ask its legal department to explain the requirements of the board resolution that created the commission and any other resolutions that defined the responsibilities of the Bond Accountability Commission.
Coles noted the legal department is also crucial in keeping down the costs of the district during the course of the facilities plan. She said the district’s legal department should be responsible for creating contracts that would make cost overruns the contractor’s problem, not the district’s problem.
The Bond Accountability Commission should be independent with its own chair and a secretary that can request data from the school district’s existing staff.
Coles suggested the Board of Education develop an action plan, make demands of itself and rethink how it does things. In responding to the challenge of reconstituting the Bond Accountability Commission Coles said the board shouldn’t complain about the lack of funding, it should instead ask itself, “How do I do what I have to do, if I don’t have a dime to do it.”
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