A Bargain for the Dayton Public Schools

With the Dayton Public Schools (DPS) levy vote just a week away, there is still a fair amount of uncertainty surrounding its fate (despite ours and other organizations’ endorsements). Like Ohio’s other big urban school districts, DPS’s efforts are complicated by history. The district has suffered from heavy enrollment losses--yes, some due to charter schools, but more due to an overall decline in Dayton’s population. Couple these losses with a long shadow of poor academic performance (one that is happily receding), and deep skepticism from citizens about district efficiency, and the result is a make-or-break levy to cover a $24 million deficit in 2007-08, and even greater projected shortfalls in years to come.

Despite these challenges, the Dayton Public Schools, like other urban districts, has managed to accumulate a considerable surplus of wealth in one area: school facilities. Thanks to state and local contributions totaling over half a billion dollars, new school construction has taken off in the area, leaving a trail of empty school buildings in its wake, and making veritable land (or building) barons out of DPS. Almost two dozen are listed “in transition” or possibly lying fallow with limited or uncertain futures. This number is sure to climb as new construction is completed.

At a recent rally for school choice in Dayton, House Speaker Jon Husted was asked about his support for the upcoming DPS levy. In response, he noted the district’s surplus of facilities and offered his support for the upcoming levy on the condition that DPS agree to make available unused facilities (presumably, for lease or sale) to local charter schools. DPS board president Yvonne Isaacs has rejected such “bargaining” on principle, stating the levy deserves passage on its own. Yet rejecting the Speaker’s offer outright is overly hasty. For in his conditional offer exists an opportunity to show Daytonians that district leadership, in seeking more local support, is thinking about the well-being of the city’s children, instead of its own institutional interests. Not to mention it would mark some long overdue collaboration between the district and area charters.

On a more practical level, Speaker Husted’s bargain, in addition to potentially providing area charter students with upgraded facilities, directly serves the interests of the district. House Bill 276, signed last December by former Governor Taft, allows districts leasing facilities to charter schools to combine those charter students’ test scores with district students’ scores. Thus Dayton Public Schools, whose students were outperformed in reading and math in grades 4-8, could not only bring in precious revenue from new lease agreements or sales, but more easily secure their Continuous Improvement rating--or raise it--in future years.

To keep politics and old grudges out of the equation, DPS could even create a “Facilities Trust”--an independent nonprofit entity, perhaps in partnership with local civic and business leaders that would broker the sale or lease of unused property/buildings to qualified area charters (perhaps even using set criteria for academic and fiscal health). By engaging the expertise of business leaders, real estate brokers, and political officials, a Facilities Trust could serve all parties fairly and effectively (one model of such a trust exists in Portland, Oregon). And DPS officials and board members wouldn’t be distracted from their worthwhile and promising efforts to raise student achievement in the district.

By reaching out to charter schools, the Dayton Public Schools could gain Mr. Husted’s support for the May levy, greater administrative efficiency, improved test scores--and with them, the votes of 6,000+ charter school families in the Gem City.

A similar version of this editorial ran in the April 22nd edition of the Dayton Daily News.

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