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From The Sun Press   March 2, 2000

Closed levy talks don't sway UH

Staff Writer

March 2, 2000

UNIVERSITY HEIGHTS -- Mayor Beryl Rothschild and City Council will "let the voters decide."

 Despite a closed-door meeting with Cleveland Heights-University Heights school officials last week, all but one elected city official will not support the district's 9.4-mill levy on Tuesday's ballot.

The city officials asked school officials to adopt 10 recommendations in exchange for their levy support.

 Monday night, the school board responded by approving six of the 10 as "goals." That wasn't enough for the city. It will withhold its support.

 Mayor Beryl Rothschild and council called the district's response "a good start," but one that has ultimately "fallen short of a full commitment."

 Meanwhile, the private meeting has cast a shadow over the Ohio Sunshine Law.

 Councilman Elijah Wheeler set up the meeting between the mayor, CH-UH Superintendent Paul Masem, and a handful of other school and city officials Feb. 23 at City Hall.

 Wheeler is the only council member who has come out in favor of the levy.

 He said, "I facilitated bringing the two parties together. I asked Masem and Rothschild to come to the table to, figuratively speaking, have a meeting of the minds and hammer out an agreement."

 Four council members -- a majority of the governing body -- attended the gathering.

 That violates the Sunshine Law, which states that if a majority of a public body meets, the public and the media must be notified at least 24 hours in advance.

 The media was not invited.

 Rothschild told The Sun Press Tuesday that nobody thought to alert the media.

 On Monday, Rothschild issued a press release stating that the mayor and council, except for Wheeler, would not support the levy.

 Councilman Phillip Ertel faxed the release to The Sun Press. He said city officials typed up the 10 recommendations for the school district to agree to as a condition of levy support.

 The board accepted only six. Superintendent Paul Masem said, "These are goals which we have set for ourselves."

 The board's six goals are to:

  Bring the district's state report card rating above "academic watch" by June 2001;

  Extend the life of Tuesday's levy from the promised three years to four;

  Maintain an average annual spending cap of 4 percent for general fund expenditures for the life of the levy;

  Reform the Lay Finance Committee as a 21-member body, requiring members to have extensive financial expertise;

  Hold an annual public meeting for the district treasurer to report on the state of the school's finances; and,

  Develop, with the help of a citizen steering committte, a five-year strategic plan to guide the district's educational and financial initiatives.

 The board did not support council's four other suggestions, which were:

  Test all new students transferring from outside school districts and help them perform at CH-UH standards;

  Form a citizens task force to study the illegal students issue;

  Form a citizens task force to study racial balance in the district;

  Form a task force to promote Gearity School as a "neighborhood" school.

 Responding to the first one, Masem said, "We're already testing new students."

 As for the other three, he said, "They are beyond our personal scope and should be brought to the attention of the Joint Boards which was convened to address such issues."

 Ertel said, "Since the goals are a far cry from a commitment, we can't support (the levy)."

 Also, Rothschild was upset because the school board didn't give the city officials any credit for their help in identifying the goals.

 "We are the ones that presented those things to them. We are the ones that got them to even consider these commitments. I really find this disturbing," Rothschild said.

 "I've been trying for four years to get them to address these issues."

 The press release said, "Although inevitable, we had hoped the levy would be a lower millage rate."

 It said that city officials had supported the successful 1996 levy "with the hope of improved performance.

 "Working behind the scenes since that time, we have attempted to convince the school board to put academic and fiscal reforms in place to turn around the perceptions of the school system," it said.

 It then outlined the 10 recommendations for the CH-UH district.

 The news release also stated that CH-UH Board of Education President Barbara Hodgkiss told UH council that its support of the levy is not needed.

 Hodgkiss denied this Monday night, saying the board accepts all the support it can get.

 Besides Wheeler and Rothschild, also at the meeting were council members Steve Bennett, Phillip Ertel and Susan Infeld.

 Councilman David Mitchell and Councilman Jeffrey Friedman were not there. Friedman is not supporting the levy, but Mitchell is staying neutral.

 Attending from the school board were Masem, Treasurer Bruce Beamer, Hodgkiss, and board member Joan Natko.

 Masem said his group was "invited to drop over to University Heights City Hall," noting the school district did not call the meeting.

 Cleveland Heights Mayor Edward Kelley said Tuesday that he and his city's council were not invited to the Feb. 23 meeting.

 "We were not asked anything," he said. "Somebody's fanny better get swatted for this."

 In city council's defense, Rothschild said city Law Director Kenneth Fisher said the session wasn't considered a public meeting and therefore did not violate the Sunshine Law because the group was not discussing city issues.

 But as a pre-arranged gathering by public officials to discuss or conduct public business -- namely the school district's finances and the upcoming levy -- this constituted an official "meeting," under Ohio Sunshine Laws.

 Wheeler told The Sun Press Monday that the meeting was held away from the public eye, but "with no disrespect to you guys, to the media."

 He said the purpose was "to have the officials just have a heart- to-heart discussion," to allow both sides "to achieve a better understanding," and "to try and get council to be more lenient."

 He added, "I supported the levy, and after listening to both parties, I felt there was some common ground."

 Ertel said the meeting "grew from a lunch. We were trying very hard to work behind the scenes to create an atmosphere for some positive accountable issues."

 He said Tuesday, "There were a lot of meetings" for three weeks prior to Feb. 23.

 "We'd been exchanging faxes," he added.

 "It was very informal, and we just happened to get a majority. I think that happened inadvertently," he said.

 "There was no attempt to skirt the media or the public. We were working furiously inder a very tight deadline to accomplish something."

 He added, "We're always accused of criticizing the school board without suggesting anything. We were trying to work together to get passed that under a very tight deadline."

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