Yes We Can challenges incumbent Democrats
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.
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.”
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.
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.”