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Cleveland voters stood up to dark money, invested in schools at critical moment: Leila Atassi

Posted Nov 06, 2020

CLEVELAND, Ohio – In the stressful aftermath of Election Day, when so much remains in the balance, let’s take a moment to celebrate a solid, unequivocal win for those among us who most needed one. Cleveland voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved Issue 68 to support the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, with a 15-mill renewal and a 5-mill increase, while the district grapples with the unprecedented challenges of educating students remotely during the coronavirus pandemic. The measure, which also extends the tax renewal cycle from four years to 10, passed by a margin of more than 20 percentage points. It’s expected to raise about $87 million per year for the district – with about $20.6 million of that from the increase. But here’s what all of that really means: On account of Issue 68′s passage, the district won’t have to close 25 schools, cut $16 million from programming budgets and reduce its workforce by 15 percent. Extracurricular offerings and athletics are spared. So are individual school budgets that cover supplies, materials and technology. Supplemental programs, including City Year, Center for Arts Inspired Learning and others will remain, too. Schools that enjoy extended school years or longer days can maintain those schedules. And the district won’t have to shut down as many as 40 pre-K and early childhood classrooms. And perhaps most importantly for this moment, the tax increase will help the district weather the pandemic, which already has cost CMSD in excess of $23 million. About $17 million of that was on technology, alone, to ensure students have computers and internet access to attend classes remotely and safely. Since March, the district has done its best to keep students engaged in online learning, while their impoverished community has been disproportionately ravaged by the global health crisis and its economic fallout. CMSD has worked with community partners that have provided safe spaces during school days and proctors to oversee remote learning. And as I described in a column last week, teachers creatively have leveraged online tools and communication platforms to help students make the most of their experience. Tuesday’s victory was critical and well-deserved. In an interview Wednesday, Cleveland schools CEO Eric Gordon told and The Plain Dealer that the results confirm for him that "Clevelanders believe in the importance of children and education. “When they see progress, that is a return on their investment,” Gordon told reporter Emily Bamforth. “They’re willing to invest more, even in this difficult time.” But all of that said, I want to pause to reflect on the fact that not everyone had the best interests of Cleveland students at heart during campaign season -- and they didn’t even have the guts to publicly disclose their identities. A mysterious group with support from at least one local real estate developer sought to torpedo Issue 68. In mailers and advertisements, the group, which called itself the Cleveland’s Future Fund, claimed that a rise in property taxes would lead to higher rents and would shutter small businesses that can’t afford a tax increase. The group spent $28,107 on Facebook ads since Oct. 8, according to the social media site’s ad transparency portal. The videos played upon viewers' sense of pandemic fatigue and fears about the local economy, referring to the tax as a “$90 million gut punch” at a time when “we’ve been through a lot.” Notably missing from the ads is any mention of the school district, let alone the fact that the tax renewal in question constitutes 12 percent of CMSD’s operating budget. Only local real estate developer Doug Price was forthcoming about his involvement with the dark money campaign, acknowledging in an interview with Crain’s Cleveland that he had contributed to the effort. But others remain in the shadows. A complaint filed by the Cleveland Teachers Union president with elections officials pointed out that mailers listed a false address to further obscure who was driving the campaign. The attempt to destroy Issue 68 meant those advocating for the tax had to work that much harder, canvassing neighborhoods with their own informational flyers titled “Truth.” To be clear, it wasn’t the opposition to the tax that necessarily should be condemned. Any citizen has the right to campaign against a ballot issue. It’s the secrecy of the effort’s organizers that we must collectively rebuke. No one should get to hide their identity or motivations, while driving a campaign that would have such dire consequences for Cleveland’s most vulnerable, the city’s children. There’s a reason why no one wants to be publicly associated with that effort – least of all Cleveland real estate developers. Their projects often depend heavily on the city for tax incentives and other support. And within Mayor Frank Jackson’s administration, which values the school district and its students above all else, memories are long. I’ll leave it at that. And I’ll return, instead, to celebrating the fact that Cleveland voters have decided to see their schools through this pandemic. They have stood up to dark money and rejected propaganda. They have proven that they are more invested in Cleveland’s future than anyone lurking behind the so-called Cleveland’s Future Fund.

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