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Reverend Joel L. King, Jr. (photo courtesy Columbus compact Corporation 2)
When you run a well-oiled political machine like Michael Coleman, you don’t expect to hear any squeaks. The Mayor’s commitment to pass Issues 50 and 51, the Columbus School levy issue and the establishment of an independent School auditor, appeared to be a non-controversial landslide. Imagine his dismay now, with less than two weeks to go before Election Day, knowing opposition is spreading spontaneously in unexpected places. First, “It’s OK To Vote No on the Columbus City Schools Levy 50 & 51” popped up with a strong internet presence. Then “No Cheaters, No Charters Columbus” began placing “Vote No on 50/51” yard signs around the city. But the Mayor knew he was in for a battle, looking genuinely stunned and agitated when the Columbus Council of PTAs unanimously rejected his levy proposals. The Mayor’s headaches grew on Wednesday, October 16 when a new group emerged opposing the levy issues – Citizens Against Issues 50 & 51. The group sprang from Khari Enaharo’s Magic 106.3 radio talk show and includes three well-known African American ministers: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s cousin Joel L. King, Jr., and Pastors Dale B. Snyder and Frederick LeMarr. All three are actively involved locally in social justice ministries that fight against police brutality as well as seeking to stop gang violence. Attorney Byron L. Potts, Tyrone Thomas of Police Officers for Equal Rights, and Brother Cecil Ahad of Men for the Movement joined as well. The timing for the Citizens Against Issues 50 & 51 first press conference could not have been better. At the Columbus Board of Education meeting the night before, a projected $19.2 million deficit in the City Schools budget inexplicably morphed into a $51.1 million yearly surplus. Someone should tell the pro-levy spokespersons. Interim School Board Superintendent Dan Good has been campaigning for months outlining the worst case scenario should the levy fail: it would force him to cut “$50 million” from the budget. The day before the budget announcement, Columbus Educational Association President Rhonda Johnson told a packed Clintonville forum that if the levy did not pass they would have to start “dismantling the school district.” Issue 50 is asking for a 24 percent increase in property taxes and Pastor Snyder argues that it won’t be the landlords who absorb that exorbitant increase. “I’m voting no. Our senior citizens currently are living in houses and paying mortgages on loans that are more than the house is worth. Low income people who rent are going to see their rental fees increase,” he said. “People need to do the math. There’s more than enough money in the Columbus Schools right now.” As Rev. King pointed out on the radio program, “A bunch of corrupt people come in and cheat the system. How is the solution to it giving them more money?” Both King and LeMarr cite the culture of corruption and the loss of public trust as the real issues driving their “no” vote on the levy. Potts pointed out that Citizens Against Issues 50 & 51 chose Champion Middle School as the site for their press conference because it was recently “beautifully renovated” but is the worst-performing middle school in the state of Ohio. Issue 50 includes the School system borrowing $175,000,000, to be repaid annually over a maximum period of 36 years – some of which is earmarked for renovating school buildings. “That’s why I’m saying no, no, no!” Potts stated. “They need to let the investigations from the State of Ohio and the FBI go forward before asking for any more money.” As outlined in the September 5 Free Press, Columbus City Schools are under two major corruption investigations, one by Ohio Auditor David Yost for data scrubbing and illegal payments to vendors, the other from the U.S. Department of Justice (FBI) for contract steering. As the “It’s OK to Vote No” website reads, “’Trust us,’ is a hard message to stomach when delivered by a body of people who have a history of covering up scandal and lack any accountability.” The website goes on to argue four key points in opposing the levy: “At the helm are Mayor Michael Coleman, current School Board President Carol Perkins and former School Board member Andy Ginther. They are not reformers, they are the people who helped shape the status quo.” Their second point is, “Expansion is not reform.” The third point states, “Without evidence or accountability, the plan pledges that every school in the Columbus City School district will be rated an A or B by 2020. “ As the Free Press pointed out last week, “Last year, just 7 percent of the district schools earned an A or B.” The last point is that, “The Columbus Education Plan earmarks $8.5 million for charter schools that are already funded by the state.” This is a point of contention with all of the oppositional groups and has been raised in internal discussions of the Columbus Educational Association. The Mayor and his spokespeople claim that they will not allow any for-profit charter schools, but it seems disingenuous. Charter schools by their nature are non-profit educational entities, but many of them – particularly the right-wing faith-based schools – are managed by for-profit companies such as White Hat. The owner, David Brennan, is one the leading political donors to Ohio’s Republican politicians, which may explain why Governor John Kasich has endorsed Issues 50 & 51. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Mayor’s “easy” win gone astray is the commercial by Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer arguing for fairness for all children. Critics immediately pointed out that Meyer does not live within the Columbus City School district and will not be paying the additional 24 percent increase if 50/51 pass.