Two generations of Cleveland school children have completed their K-12 education in a district led by an unelected school board, the only one in the state of Ohio.
Since 1997, when the Ohio legislature passed a law to reorganize the Cleveland school board, the nine voting members of the board and the district’s CEO have been chosen by the Cleveland mayor.
Mayor Justin Bibb is the fourth mayor (after Michael R. White, Jane Campbell and Frank Jackson) to run the schools. Bibb will soon use his power over the school board to pick a new CEO to lead the district.
Current CEO Eric Gordon, an educator celebrated for his successes at the district, announced in September he will leave his job at the end of the school year.
Under mayoral control, school board members serve four-year terms, but there is no limit to the number of times a member may be reappointed. For the last two decades, the board has been a mix of newcomers and veterans. One member, Louise P. Dempsey, has served continuously since Mayor Mike White appointed her to Cleveland’s first non-elected school board in 1998.
While anyone could debate the politics of eliminating an elected school board, what’s not up for debate are the dramatic changes in the district since the mayoral takeover in 1998.
Mayoral control helped pull the district out of decades of political dysfunction and severe economic hardship and has provided some stability in budgeting, policymaking, and building public trust.
Even with Cleveland’s population decrease and several economic downtowns, the district has racked up successes in the past 25 years. The Cleveland school district’s high school graduation rate went from around 40 percent in the 1990s to a high of 80 percent in 2019.
Here’s a look at the history of the school district under mayoral control, including some background on how the appointment system came to be.
The backstory: Cleveland public schools before mayoral control
When the Ohio legislature passed the bill giving White the power to appoint a school board and a CEO, Cleveland’s schools were in fiscal emergency and under control of both the state superintendent and the federal courts. The elected Cleveland school board had been troubled for decades.
In the 1960s, amid racial tensions, Cleveland residents held numerous protests across the city to demand school integration. The demonstrations highlighted the unequal treatment of Black students who attended majority-white schools – problems the elected school board members were accused of ignoring.
In 1973, a civil rights case, Reed v. Rhodes, was filed in federal court by the NAACP, and members of the elected Cleveland school board as well as other state and local leaders were found to be complicit in maintaining a racially segregated school system. The federal court’s desegregation and busing orders, which resulted from the case’s 1977 ruling, are generally considered to have accelerated white and Black flight from Cleveland, changing the city’s demographics.
The Reed ruling placed the school district under court supervision in 1977 and that oversight continued through 2000, when the courts determined the district and state officials had done enough to “unify” and desegregate schools, despite there being a significant gap in academic performance between Black and white students.
The Reed decision and the resulting federal oversight of the district marked the start of a 20-year revolving door of school chiefs.
Here is a timeline of Cleveland public schools under mayoral control, highlighting key events and changes within the school district’s administration.
Cleveland schools put under state supervision
A federal judge ordered Cleveland schools to be placed under supervision of the state superintendent after finding that the district’s money and management problems were “standing in the way of education.” At the time, Cleveland was the “largest school system ever to be stripped of local control,” the Washington Post reported.
Cleveland Schools Superintendent Sammie Campbell Parrish resigned amid the state takeover. At the time, there were conflicts between the mayor and elected school board, and severe financial difficulties at the district.
Images: Carl Stokes Federal Courthouse, credit: United States District Court; Superintendent Sammie Campbell Parrish, credit: Cleveland Metropolitan School District
Activists call for mayoral control
A coalition of churches and community activists calling itself Westside-Eastside Congregations Acting Now (WE-CAN) lobbied to have then-Mayor Michael R. White take control of the schools.
Ohio school funding method ruled unconstitutional
The Ohio Supreme Court ruled the funding of Ohio schools unconstitutional. The funding system in question, which still exists, is based on property taxes, meaning poorer districts such as Cleveland generally receive less money per capita from residents.
Image: Ohio Supreme Court, credit: State of Ohio
State passed law handing control to mayor Michael White
At the suggestion of then-Gov. George Voinovich and the new state-appointed superintendent of Cleveland Schools, the Ohio legislature voted to give control of the school board and district CEO appointments to the mayor of Cleveland. The bill was challenged in court by the Cleveland Teachers’ Union and the local NAACP, who argued that it was anti-democratic.
As a result of the legal challenges, the legislation didn’t take effect for more than a year. The law officially took effect in September 1998, after being upheld by the federal court.
Image: A clipping from East Side Daily News, Credit: Cleveland Public Library
Barbara Byrd-Bennett appointed CEO
Barbara Byrd-Bennett, a well-known educator and former superintendent of New York City schools, became the first CEO appointed by Mayor White under the new law.
As CEO, Byrd-Bennett received mixed reviews – she was praised for stabilizing the district’s finances after years of mismanagement and for raising graduation rates and test scores, but she was criticized for her high salary, which increased by more than two-thirds while she served as CEO. She also lost public confidence because of money problems that came in her last two years, including the defeat of an important school levy.
Image: CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, East Side Daily News, Cleveland Public Library.
Jane Campbell elected mayor
Image credit: U.S. Capitol Historical Society
Clevelanders voted to keep mayoral control
Pleased with the results of Byrd-Bennett’s improvements to the district, 70 percent of Cleveland voters agreed to keep mayoral control when the issue appeared on the ballot. The NAACP and the Cleveland Teachers’ Union both supported keeping the structure, despite having opposed it back in 1998.
School levy defeated
A school levy, which would have raised $45 million, was defeated after district leaders closed 11 schools in June and laid off a large number of staff members, including teachers. Levy opponents argued that residents should not put more money into a district that couldn’t handle its money well.
Frank Jackson elected mayor.
Image credit: City of Cleveland
CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennet leaves the school district.
Frank Jackson appoints Eugene Sanders as CEO
Sanders came to Cleveland after six years as the superintendent of Toledo Public Schools.
Image Credit: The City Club of Cleveland
Eric Gordon hired to CMSD
Eric Gordon was hired by the Cleveland school district as the chief academic officer. Before he came to Cleveland he taught in New Orleans and Toledo public schools.
District name changed
CEO Sanders and the school board changed the name of the district from Cleveland “Municipal” School District to Cleveland “Metropolitan” School District in an effort to attract more students from across the region. This accompanied Sanders’ other efforts to transform the district, which included uniform requirements for students and the addition of specialized programs and single-gender schools.
Image credit: Signal Cleveland
Eric Gordon became CEO
Gordon selected as new CEO by Mayor Frank Jackson and the school board.
Image credit: Signal Cleveland
Students who were kindergarteners in 1998 graduated from high school, the first class to complete K-12 careers under mayoral control.
Image credit: Cleveland Metropolitan School District
Cleveland Plan approved in statehouse
Cleveland’s Plan for Transforming Schools, a project Gordon had been working on for years, was passed in the Ohio Legislature. The Cleveland Plan aimed to increase and improve school-choice options for students and families, provide more school autonomy, and implement performance-based accountability for all district and charter schools in the city through the creation of the Cleveland Transformation Alliance.
Frank Jackson re-elected mayor
During his campaign he maintained his support for the Cleveland Transformation Alliance panel, a part of the Cleveland Plan, which would vet new charter schools in order to maintain a high level of quality options for Cleveland students. Some saw Jackson as anti-charter.
Eric Gordon re-appointed as CEO
Board members cited the district’s successes under Gordon, including the passage of the 2012 levy, four years of a balanced budget, and a 12.1 percent increase in graduation rates since Gordon took over.
Eric Gordon won the “Urban Educator of the Year” award from the Council of Great City Schools.
Image credit: Cleveland Metropolitan School District
School levy renewed by voters
Sixty-eight percent of Cleveland voters backed the renewal of the 15-mill school levy, with 68 percent of voters in favor.
Say Yes Cleveland founded
After years of planning, the district announced a partnership to create Say Yes Cleveland, a program offering eligible graduates tuition assistance for college. The partnership included the national nonprofit Say Yes to Education and several regional partners. It also provides support for current K-12 students.
Image credit: Say Yes Cleveland
COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to close for the rest of the year.
2020/2021 School year
The 2020/2021 school year began with virtual school for all, phasing back to in-person instruction in March 2021. CEO Gordon quickly turned around a program to provide iPads and WiFi hotspots to every CMSD student so learning could continue remotely as much as possible.
Voters approved levy increase
A ballot initiative to renew and increase the school tax levy passed with 61 percent of the vote, continuing to keep the district’s finances stable and offsetting pandemic costs. It also allowed CMSD to permanently fund the program providing every student with a laptop or iPad. The levy will cover the district’s budget for 10 years.
Image credit: Cleveland Transformation Alliance
Justin Bibb elected mayor of Cleveland
Eric Gordon announced he would not seek reappointment as CEO of CMSD
In his final State of the Schools address, Gordon listed many of the district’s successes under his oversight, including overall improvement in math and reading scores, the development of partnerships with the community and nonprofits, and the approval of three school levies that allowed for the construction of 20 new school buildings.
New CEO search underway
The school board hired a CEO search firm, taking the first step in the process to find a new leader for the district.