Yes We Can chal­lenges in­cum­bent Democrats

The Columbus Dispatch - - Metro&state - By Bill Bush

The Colum­bus Board of Ed­u­ca­tion race fea­tures in­cum­bent Democrats vs. in­sur­gent Democrats, with Repub­li­cans com­pletely locked out.

The Dem-on-Dem con­test comes at a time when there’s trou­ble in Dem-land. The Colum­bus teach­ers union, a peren­nial player in Demo­cratic school-board pol­i­tics, is­sued a vote of no-con­fi­dence in the school board fol­low­ing con­tentious con­tract talks this past sum­mer. That could shake the sta­tus quo sup­port from the spring pri­mary, when the three board in­cum­bents fin­ished 1, 2, 3. They were: board Vice Pres­i­dent Michael Cole and mem­bers Ra­mona Reyes and Do­minic Paretti, all en­dorsed by the Franklin County Demo­cratic Party.

The three chal­lengers, run­ning to­gether as mem­bers of the Yes We Can wing of the

lo­cal Democrats, are: Erin Upchurch, Amy Harkins and Abby Vaile.

In the six-way field race, the top three can­di­dates win seats. Vot­ers can choose up to three can­di­dates on their bal­lot.

To in­cum­bent board mem­ber Paretti, the district has been suc­cess­ful and is mov­ing in the right di­rec­tion, and he can’t un­der­stand why Yes We Can — a group that says they were in­spired by the pres­i­den­tial bid of Bernie San­ders — is try­ing to un­seat their fel­low Democrats.

“Most of the time they agree with the things that we’re do­ing in the district, for the most part,” Paretti said. “I still won­der what they’re run­ning on my­self.”

“I don’t think we agree on quite as much as Mr. Paretti be­lieves,” said Upchurch, who took fourth place in the pri­mary with 12.2 per­cent of the vote, just be­hind Paretti. “I feel like our board has fallen asleep at the wheel.”

Cole said the three in­cum­bents are “a very solid, fire-tested team.”

“I ve­he­mently dis­agree that they can do the job bet­ter than me,” Cole said of the Yes We Can can­di­dates.

Tax breaks

One of the ar­eas of dis­agree­ment between the two camps is prop­erty-tax breaks for de­vel­op­ers. The in­cum­bents, not­ing that they don’t cre­ate state laws that al­low tax breaks, are rolling with the punches, try­ing to get the best deals they can know­ing that Colum­bus City Coun­cil will of­ten grant them any­way.

But in one re­cent case, where the board did have veto power be­cause the abate­ment was greater than 75 per­cent and longer than a decade, the school board agreed to it any­way, af­ter ne­go­ti­at­ing con­ces­sions from Piz­zuti Com­pa­nies. Un­der the deal, the district will not col­lect about $12.5 mil­lion in taxes over 15 years.

“You can’t pay bills with money that you don’t have,” Paretti said, not­ing that Piz­zuti said the farm­land near Rick­en­backer Air­port would not have been de­vel­oped with­out the abate­ment. “You’re not los­ing money. The money never would have ex­isted.”

That is pure spec­u­la­tion, Harkins said: “We don’t know. Colum­bus is a boom­ing mar­ket and boom­ing econ­omy.”

The district is be­ing fi­nan­cially squeezed by a state fund­ing cap, char­ters and vouchers, on top of an avalanche of lo­cal prop­erty-tax breaks, Vaile said.

“Th­ese de­vel­op­ers kind of hold the city hostage,” Vaile said. “Some­body has to even­tu­ally say no to them at least once.”

In­cum­bent Reyes said she doesn’t like the tax deals ei­ther — no one does — but she wants to be at the ta­ble, be­cause the city coun­cil of­ten gives them out with­out the school board’s ad­vance con­sent or even knowl­edge.

But Reyes, who voted along with the rest of the board to grant the Piz­zuti break, said she was un­aware that the board had the power to veto the deal. If the board had done so, the city coun­cil could have uni­lat­er­ally ap­proved only a 10-year, 75 per­cent abate­ment.

“I’ll have to look fur­ther into that,” Reyes said.

“It’s got to be a value-add to our kids,” Cole said, a ref­er­ence to the board se­cur­ing up­front cash pay­ments to­tal­ing $1.1 mil­lion, stu­dent in­tern­ships and new equip­ment from Piz­zuti. “This sys­tem is not per­fect.”

School choice

Harkins said the in­cum­bents are “politi­cians,” while the Yes We Can slate are “peo­ple who are ac­tu­ally in the schools, peo­ple who have been there for years” as par­ents, vol­un­teers and even as a re­tired district teacher, as Vaile is.

Cole points out that Harkins pulled her son out of the district in fa­vor of a pri­vate school when he didn’t win the lot­tery to at­tend Colum­bus Al­ter­na­tive High School, one of the district’s premier aca­demic pro­grams.

“If I was Willy Wonka, I’m not eat­ing no­body else’s choco­late,” said Cole, who has a daugh­ter in a district high school and a son in a district mid­dle school. “She’s good enough to be lead­er­ship here, but not good enough to have her kid go to school here.”

Whether board mem­bers and district lead­ers should have their kids at­tend district schools has been long­stand­ing po­lit­i­cal fod­der. For­mer Colum­bus Su­per­in­ten­dent Gene Har­ris, for­mer board Pres­i­dent Stephanie Hightower, for­mer Colum­bus Mayor Michael B. Cole­man and for­mer school board mem­ber and cur­rent Mayor An­drew J. Ginther all have chil­dren who at­tended or at­tend pri­vate schools. For­mer board mem­ber Bryan O. Stew­ard had chil­dren in a char­ter school, de­mo­nized by many district of­fi­cials as drain­ing state money from their pro­grams.

Harkins said her son left the district his fresh­man year, a “prod­uct of the lot­tery sys­tem” when he couldn’t get into CAHS. Her run­ning mate, Upchurch, has a daugh­ter in a district mid­dle school and a son in a district high school.

Teacher pay

The Colum­bus Ed­u­ca­tion As­so­ci­a­tion, the teach­ers union, for the first time in mem­ory won’t back the en­dorsed Democrats. At the same time, it won’t back their op­po­nents on the Yes We Can slate.

CEA Pres­i­dent Tracey John­son said the union can’t back a can­di­date un­less it’s con­fi­dent in that per­son. John­son bashed the board last month af­ter it of­fered teach­ers raises of 1.5 per­cent and 1 per­cent over two years, say­ing the union “felt dis­re­spected” by the of­fer and sug­gested teach­ers might con­tinue to “work to the rule,” do­ing the min­i­mum they are con­trac­tu­ally obliged to do.

The of­fer was dic­tated by the state’s de­ci­sion to short­change the district by $83 mil­lion a year un­der what the state’s per-pupil for­mula calls for, Reyes said. “When we go into ne­go­ti­a­tions, we go in in good faith,” Reyes said. Teach­ers still get step in­creases based on years of ser­vice, Reyes noted.

“They ac­cepted it,” Cole said, not­ing that 63 per­cent of mem­bers voted to take the deal that John­son de­cries.

“They should have voted no con­fi­dence in the state leg­is­la­ture,” Paretti said, say­ing the board can’t be in a po­si­tion to have to cut pro­grams like march­ing bands and foot­ball teams be­cause it gave raises that it couldn’t af­ford. “I had to make a de­ci­sion on what’s in the best in­ter­est of the district and our kids.”

The Yes We Can slate dis­agreed: “I don’t think the teach­ers got what they de­served,” Harkins said. “The pay raise didn’t even keep up with in­fla­tion.”

“We have to re­tain the best and bright­est,” Upchurch said.

“They got noth­ing in the con­tract,” Vaile said of teach­ers. “They got ab­so­lutely noth­ing.”



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