Wednesday, April 6, 2011

As district lays off 643 teachers, closes 7 schools, Raskind absorbs the anger

Last night, Peter Raskind did the job no one else would want. Facing a crowd of angry teachers, parents and students, the interim CEO asked the Cleveland school board to lay off 643 teachers and close seven schools. They did.

“These are very, very tough recommendations to address what is obviously a very, very tough and difficult situation,” the former National City CEO said.

When I wrote my profile of Raskind, “Quick Fixer,” for the April issue, he was still in the honeymoon phase of his job, forging goodwill. But when an interim CEO has five months to confront growing deficits, the honeymoon is short.

Now Raskind’s key transitional in the schools’ future becomes clear. It’s not just to apply his bank-CEO skills to find surgical, strategic cuts – though he’s done some of that, ending 50 administrators’ $500 car allowances and the practice of paying 29 supervisors’ share of their pension contributions. Raskind's temporary position gives him unusual freedom to confront the district’s financial dilemma and act.

The schools are caught in a fiscal vise, pressed by cuts in state aid on one side and a shrinking city on another: falling tax revenue, fewer students. The teacher’s union’s preferred answer, a new school levy, would likely fail at the polls. The union is worried about class sizes growing, and rightly so -- but with the district closing half-empty schools, it’s hard to doubt that it needs fewer teachers than it used to.

Raskind, who’s working for $1 and leaving this summer, can absorb the anger at last night’s meeting, deflecting it from the school board, Mayor Frank Jackson, and his future successor. His layoff and school-closing resolutions, adopted last night, didn’t just cite the $47 million deficit for the 2011-2012 school year, but also a cumulative $398 million deficit projected for the next three years.

So by confronting two or three years of deficits this spring, by absorbing the anger and taking it with him when he goes, he hopes to hand a manageable, right-sized district to the as-yet-unchosen new schools CEO. It’s a test of an unusual idea: that sometimes, some of a community’s problems are best solved by an outsider with nothing to lose.

Update, 4/7: Today's Plain Dealer has lots of details about the layoffs (the district has only 15 social workers, and they'll all be laid off? Really?). An editorial is mostly supportive of Raskind's cuts, but says he "must be far more transparent about the extent of cuts he's making to central office staff -- and more relentless about trimming that and other school overhead." He's promising deeper central office cuts by April 26.

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