Newcomers to the city often wonder how exactly did the Columbus Public Schools get so profoundly screwed up? If the Chamber of Commerce wanted to really give people moving into Columbus the truth of why the school system is so bad, they would include copies of A Schoolhouse Divided (Columbus Alive Publishing/Columbus Institute for Contemporary Journalism, $15.00) in their informational packets.

Why are the Columbus Public Schools a sinkhole of waste, fraud, sweetheart deals, corruption, and greed? The same reason bank robbers rob banks. Sitting on an annual budget of over $600 million, the school system is a piggy bank attracting opportunists whose motivation is to line their pockets instead of educating children.

In this compilation of essays from Columbus Alive, Urban Edition and The Free Press, Fitrakis turns his investigative journalist skills on the school system. From 1993 to 2003, Fitrakis takes the reader on a decade long bad trip through the morass that is education in Ohio.

It’s all here. Columbus Education Association President John Grossman and his vendetta against Bill Moss over the firing of former superintendent Ronald Etheridge. The Ohio Supreme Court ordering Governor Bob Taft and the Republican controlled majority to address the “savage inequality” of the state’s school financing system in the DeRolph v. Ohio decision. The strange cases of principal Wanda Knight who was “reassigned” from Columbus Africentric School and former treasurer Ben Pittman. Fitrakis, who has won numerous journalism awards for his muckraking investigative reporting, takes the reader through some of the not-so “greatest hits” of educational malpractice in Columbus.

A Schoolhouse Divided doesn’t step lightly through the minefields of race. In the book’s introduction Albert Warner, a businessman, community activist and formed candidate for the Columbus Board of Education, assails so-called black “leaders” for betraying their own children in a myopic pursuit of their own career advancement. “I have watched black school leaders who have been so confused about their own identity and responsibility to self, or so intimidated by or afraid of the establishment that they themselves advanced policies and practices they knew were harmful to black children and children of color and poverty. Through their own admitted assimilation they were willing to sacrifice their community’s self interests in the interests of maintaining social status,.”

In a chapter on the Tuttle Crossing Mall, Fitrakis lays out his case of how the “Win-Win” Agreement between Columbus and its suburbs, “has created a whole category of people who live in Columbus, but whose children attend suburban schools.” Through manipulation of water and sewer services and agreements over annexation, school district assignments and tax sharing, this has created what Fitrakis deems, “city-dwelling suburbanites” who vote like suburbanites and demonstrate “suburban-style racial hysteria.”

Longtime observers of the Columbus political scene may note wryly as over 10 years allies of Fitrakis become adversaries such as community activist and radio talk show host Cornell McCleary and county commissioner Mary Jo Kilroy, who abandoned progressive politics to become a political hack for the Democratic Party.

What is constant is Fitrakis’s unabashed admiration of former school board member Bill Moss.

The book is dedicated to Moss and throughout Moss remains a paragon of virtue, who like Fitrkais is unbought and unbossed by the downtown monied interests. Depending on your own perspective of Moss, A Schoolhouse Divided makes clear the long-running relationship that led Fitrakis to join Moss as a duo against a bizarre alliance of Democrats and Republican school board candidates running as a team to defeat Moss in the November 2003 election.

If Moss is one of the handful of good guys trying to reform Columbus schools and watch out for the taxpayer, on the other side of the issues are current board president Stephanie Hightower, former superintendent Rosa Smith, the Columbus Dispatch and its owner John Wolfe, Nationwide Insurance and CEA president John Grossman.

With Moss off the school board and Fitrakis no longer a columnist at Alive, there are reasons to be concerned that the scams and scandals in the school system will go on without fear of exposure. Though unsuccessful in the election against a well-financed opposition for seats on the school board, Moss and Fitrakis remain active observers of the schools and will continue to monitor events as they host their weekly radio programs on WVKO-AM and through independent publications such as The Free Press.

A Schoolhouse Divided is a well-written, if sobering, reminder that parents and citizens cannot assume the education of children is the primary motivation for all of the individuals involved in the Columbus Public Schools. For a powerful and entrenched minority who bear watching, the acquisition of wealth, power and the ability to dole out favors to friends is their primary motivation.

Jeff Winbush is a freelance journalist and member of the National Book Critics Circle.

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