On Muncie Schools, Cleveland Busing and Togetherness in 21st Century Middletown

Notes from your Friendly, Neighborhood Publisher

By K. Paul Mallasch

Photo Credit: Rod Crossland - Owner of Wishbone Gifts, Inc.

MUNCIE, INDIANA (OPINION) - Next week, on Monday, December 9, 2013 at 5:00 p.m. the  Indiana Department of Education will have a public meeting at Northside Middle School Auditorium (2400 W Bethel Ave, Muncie, IN 47304). This meeting concerns the Petition for Waiver under Indiana Code 20-27-13-7 made by Muncie Community Schools to the Indiana Department of Education.

Basically, the MCS board is asking for a waiver to cease and desist with public transportation for getting students to school immediately rather than having to wait three year as required by the state. The public's opinion on this will be heard by officials at the state level as they consider the waiver request. Their primary concern is the safety of the children.

The last few public gatherings concerning the MCS board have been rather large events, with many parents and students attending - more than in previous months. The fact they're not always full is a shame in some ways, but it's also good to see more citizens finally becoming involved in the process. Education is so important. The children are literally our future.

While it's sad that a school is closing in Muncie, I think it's important to step back and look at the big picture. For one, the system is working. While votes and decisions may not be what some people have wanted, the chance to change the board members will come. For now, the main concern is the children and making sure they get what they need to succeed.

I've heard from many in the community that they will be taking their children out of Muncie schools. This is America, so they're free to do what they think needs to be done, but moving around isn't an option for some in Muncie. For those families - children and parents and grandparents and others - I say it's time to come together and show the world why Muncie is so great.

Our Anderson Neighbors

From our highly evolved downtown area (with a couple decades invested into improvements) to Ball State University, Muncie has a lot to offer. It's time to make education of children another jewel we can put in our city's crown. I've been thinking about education a lot lately. A few years ago, our neighbor Anderson, Indiana went through two schools merging to one. Some said sports played a part in the decisions made in Madison County, but what's more important is what happened.

The city brought in a very smart man - Dr. Chow - who proceeded to bring the community together. This meant working with me and others to show people that working together had many benefits and would help the children - which should be one of the main goals of any city interested in the future.

Video interview with Dr. Chow just after he took over...

...and later that year after he started to bring the community together.

Public Schools in Cleveland

Writing this column has had me thinking even further back in my life, to the cold streets of Cleveland. The public school situation in the city of my childhood was really bad back in the 1980s. Education is actually one of the reasons I decided to move to Indiana with my father when he found work here in the late 80s.

In Cleveland I grew up across the street from a high school. We also had a neighborhood elementary school that I attended. For Middle School I went to a private school, skipping the seventh grade. All was well and good until the economic situation in Cleveland began to collapse. Going to a private school was no longer a luxury that could be afforded.

I wasn't too upset. I thought going to high school across the street would be great in some ways. And then I learned that I would have to take a bus into the inner city. Cleveland had a forced desegregation system in place that some said cost a lot of money and didn't make much sense.  For forty five minutes I rode into the city. And for forty five minutes I rode until I was back in the neighborhood at the end of each day.

This wouldn't have been bad, but the inner city schools at that time were tough. After having my possessions stolen and the administrators not being able to do anything because I didn't have any proof, I knew I was in another world. I started reading Lord of the Flies. In one class, a teacher asked who had assigned me the book. I looked up at her and told her I was reading it on my own, which seemed to amaze her.

I lasted almost a year and then the opportunity to move to Indiana arose. When I knew I was leaving, I felt like I was being released from prison not simply switching schools. My elementary school experience had been good and my middle school years awkward but not horrible, but the high schools in Cleveland proper were struggling to survive at the time. I was more than happy to travel to the land of corn as it was known between me and my friends.

My dad had already secured a small apartment and was working in the tool and die industry while my mother sat in the house in Cleveland with my brother and sister waiting for it to sell. The house was located in between the inner city and the suburbs - perhaps the true definition of middle-middle class. Whatever the reason, the house wasn't selling so my dad went where he could find work and I went with him to explore Indiana and escape the scholastic chaos.

I brought lots of books with me - none as dark as Lord of the Flies. I was excited at the opportunity of having a better education so I could go to college and become a writer. I'm not sure if it was luck or intuition or just the first place he found, but my dad had landed in North Muncie. The dividing line - I would come to find out - was the train tracks south of downtown, which, at the time, was a virtual ghost town.

As I read science fiction novels, I found out I was going to be a Central Bearcat. At that time, I didn't really know - or care about - the division in Muncie. Long story short, I really liked Central. Some people kept telling me it was a rough school full of hoodlums, but I had just come from a large city school, one that was really tough. I didn't realize it at the time, but Cleveland schools were going through a lot.

The Cleveland voters approved a bond issue to repair the schools but refused to pass a tax levy for their operation, despite the fact that the district had to borrow money from the state on 3 occasions between 1977 and 1983. Some school leaders and citizens saw the busing program for racial integration as an unwanted financial burden that had to be removed before the passage of a new levy. Due to conflicts with the school board over the use of the newly acquired bond money, Tutela left the system after the school board bought out his contract for more than $300,000. In 1991 Superintendent Frank Huml predicted a $30 million deficit, but the board refused to put a levy on the ballot. Cleveland's per pupil expenditures were still higher than most districts in its region. The Plain Dealer and educational summits under the sponsorship of Mayor Michael, White's office, the business community, and community leaders pointed to the deficiencies of the educational system. The majority of students were not able to pass Ohio's new proficiency test for 9th grade students. Many graduates couldn't qualify for entry level jobs. Governor Voinovich called for a state take-over. The majority of Cleveland's residents gave the school system a D or F grade in a poll taken by the Citizen League's Research Institute.

In 1991 Mayor White successfully campaigned for a reform slate to become the majority of the school board. John Sanders, the new state superintendent, endorsed the proposal for a state take-over. Governor Voinovich also proposed a plan to appoint the state school board rather then allow the public to elect its members. Faced with the threat of a court suit to equalize school funding in Ohio, the governor advocated taking funds from wealthy school districts for redistribution to poorer areas and to allow parents to use school vouchers to attend schools of their choice.

Despite the loss of tax revenue from tax abatements for downtown projects, the Cleveland School Board refused to close schools and to make necessary financial cuts to balance the budget. The state superintendent predicted a school deficit of $55 million by 1993 and $114 million by the following year. The state controlling board approved a $75 million emergency loan without state receivership of the schools. The school board promised to ask the public for additional funds.

Supported by the new school board, Superintendent Sammie Campbell Parrish proposed "Vision 21" as a plan to renew the educational system during the summer of 1993. It made crosstown busing voluntary so parents could choose either magnet or community-based schools. Special reading and conflict resolution programs were also emphasized. Cleveland's NAACP praised the plan and advocated greater emphasis on the educational program than on busing, since the overwhelming majority of students were African American. But fears and conflicts arose over the high cost of more than $90 million per year to finance the plan and its possible negative impact on desegregating students. Critics also argued that Superintendent Parrish was too distant from the financial and administrative operation of the school system. Parents and teachers also felt that they were not consulted about what was needed to improve the schools. After the failure of another school levy in May 1994, the school board angered parents by threatening to eliminate 300 to 400 employees to prevent a $51 million dollar deficit. Despite the threat of severe cuts, the public refused to pass another levy in Nov. 1994.

With a budget of $500 million, the district's debt was 25% higher than other large school systems in the state. Another levy was cancelled after Parrish resigned in Feb. 1995, as a result of conflicts with Mayor White and the school board and the imminent state takeover. After the death of Judge Battisti in Oct. 1994, Judge Robert, Krupansky was appointed to oversee the desegregation case. In May 1994 Judge Battisti had announced that the schools would be self-governing by the year 2000 and accepted "Vision 21" as the blueprint for the future. Judge Krupansky initially gave the impression that the district would be gradually relieved from busing, but in Feb. 1995 he ordered a state take-over in the face of the financial woes and administrative chaos that had subverted the court's remedial orders for desegregation of the school system. The state superintendent was empowered to seek a $29 million loan and to appoint a new superintendent of the Cleveland schools. The court cited the school district's inability to account for the use of previous state funds as evidence of its financial mismanagement. It was ordered to close 14 schools to help remedy the deficit.

The second half of the 1990s witnessed several new initiatives aimed at helping the struggling schools. The state allocated $5.5 million to provide vouchers of up to $2,250 to allow district students to attend private independent or religious schools beginning in the fall of 1996, but the voucher program stirred heated opposition from the Cleveland Teachers Union and civil libertarian organizations, facing repeated judicial challenges ultimately leading to a Supreme Court hearing, slated for June of 2002. By April of 1999, the district had established 10 charter schools. In November 1996, voters passed a 13.5-mill operating levy, the first since 1983. In the summer of 1997, the Ohio state government approved House Bill 239, vesting the Cleveland mayor with control of the city schools, a move opposed by the teachers union and the NAACP. In March of 1998, Judge White declared that U.S. federal court oversight of the school district would end in July 2000. Barbara Byrd-Bennett, a respected New York City educator, was appointed CEO of the Cleveland schools in November 1998. [Source: CLEVELAND PUBLIC SCHOOLS - The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History]

If you have time, the rest of that page is interesting. While Muncie is a lot smaller than Cleveland, it's facing some of the same issues. And unlike Cleveland, what we're dealing with might be easier to fix. This is why looking at Anderson and what they've been able to do is a good idea. Not to mention heeding the warning signs seen in Gary, Indiana and elsewhere in the state. Anderson was able to bring the community together and make positive changes in one of the most important aspects of a community - education.

Muncie Central and Middletown

I saw Muncie Central as being light years ahead of what I had escaped from in Cleveland. Instead of learning how to survive in an institution, I had teachers that saw my boredom and encouraged me to explore my writing talents. Kowalkowski - Mister K as we called him - allowed me to trade study-hall for a pass to the school library where I could read the classics and plot out and plan my own massive novels.

Later in life, when I was attending Ball State, I came across the Middletown Series of documentaries by Peter Davis that were made in the 1980s. As a sort of reminder of the original Lynd studies in Muncie, this was a series of videos about Muncie. Howie Snyder - owner of Shakey's Pizza - was featured in one about running a family business.

Many years later, at Ball State, Howie would use that video to teach me about cinema verite and the difference between facts and truth. You can have a collection of facts but still not have the entire truth. The whole video series is worth watching, but here's a quick snippet. I hear they're now available on DVD.

The other part of that Middletown Series by Peter Davis that really stood out to me - and one that some people in Muncie allegedly tried to have it stopped from being shown - was one called Seventeen.

It was about teenagers in Muncie - a white girl with a black boyfriend. What really struck me was the division in Muncie it showed. While ugly, it's important to look at I think. The first step in making something better is recognizing there's a problem.

While I'm not originally from Muncie, I call this place my home. And looking around, I see a lot of problems with the public education system. As Glenda Ritz said last month when she stopped by, Muncie isn't the only area in the state of Indiana having problems.

It's time Hoosiers came together and worked to improve the situation. What some call Hoosier Hospitality was something I definitely noticed after moving here from the hustle and bustle of a big steel city rusting by the lake.

DWNTWN is the Original Muncie

One of the first things I learned about Muncie was that the downtown area was a bit rough around the edges and should be avoided if possible after dark. Still, I found a jewel in Danner's Books. It wasn't until later that I would discover White Rabbit Books and the used bookstore on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard (previously Broadway.)

{Diversion: That we have at least three bookstores and a great university library is yet another reason Muncie is great!}

The point is that I saw something I liked in the downtown Muncie area - something strip malls and McGalliard couldn't fill. I spent hours in The Spot trying to unravel the mystery of Muncie in words. I wasn't the only person who saw the potential of downtown - thankfully. Over the years, I saw downtown Muncie go from something dirty and a bit spooky to the wonderful place it is today.

Thanks to Vicki Veach, Cheryl Crowder, Brian Lough, Carey Hays and many, many others over the years, downtown Muncie is something our community can be proud of. It's one of our successes and the envy of many other cities around the state if not the entire Midwest. This is one reason I can't understand when people are negative about the community sometimes. Sure, we have our problems, but Muncie is a special place.

The process of renewal in downtown Muncie took many years of hard work - much of it thankless no doubt - but by working together the community of Muncie was able to build something fantastic, an area of the city that keeps improving all the time. I hope that in the next few years - the next couple decades if needed - the people of Muncie come together to fix the current problems we have with education.

Should the people really have to go to a public meeting and beg for transportation to school? Will the state try to takeover? How many years would that mess take to figure out? The time to act is now. This is a call for parents, grandparents and any citizen concerned with the future of our wonderful city to come together for the benefit of the children. This brings me to my next point.

South + North + East + West = Muncie

While I graduated from Central, I never had bad thoughts about Southside. Being someone from Cleveland, I've been able to look at the division in Muncie as both an outsider and as a member of the community, as a young man and a middle aged man.

Having said that, I understand that the Southside tradition goes back 50 years. That's a long time. The board that was elected - for one reason or another - has decided that one high school is the way to go. We must come together and make sure the children are thought about first.

We can't change the past, but the future here is bright. The American system may have its faults, but it's the best in the world. We have the freedom to change our community if we don't like what's happening.  For some, the next step may be to appoint a school board that will begin to turn things around. This is possible if the community comes together. Or the current school board may start doing a lot better - and quickly.

Regardless of any vote or what's on the agenda, we as a community should be doing everything we can to make sure the state doesn't take over. Nothing against them, but knowing what Cleveland and others in Indiana have gone through with this process, it's something we want to avoid if at all possible. We want to be able to elect our school board. That is, if we truly have our children's best interest at heart. This might be why some families are deciding to move, which is understandable.

For everyone who is staying for one reason or another, making sure you attend the public hearing about the bussing waiver is very important. Even if you don't speak, the fact you stopped your normal life to come to a public meeting and show that you care will speak volumes to the visitors from Indianapolis. And after that, we hopefully will still have busses for our young children to get to school - at least for another three years until something else can be figured out.

Rewarding Young Community Leaders

This may already be happening, but something should be put in place to help the students adjust to their new education reality. Parents at home can have a major influence on how their children will deal with having only one high school in Muncie, but maybe more can be done. After talking with local business owner Genny Gordy on the MFP Facebook Page the other day, I had the idea of putting in place a rewards system for students.

Basically, local business owners would donate gift certificates or something of value to the schools. Teachers and students could nominate children who show initiative and an ability to bring the community together to work toward a common goal - improving education in Muncie.

Rewarding young leadership like this could be one way to get the children thinking about togetherness rather than the division that has haunted Muncie's past for far too long. As previous generations of community leaders leave or retire, it's time to start training the next generation.

Even if that isn't put in place, something should be done to help students adjust to their new reality. Some have predicted problems, but this naysaying doesn't help the community at all. Between now and the next school year a lot needs to be done to prepare for the coming changes - even if that means bringing in a fresh set of faces on the MCS board.

And while we may not bring in someone from the outside like Anderson did when they recruited Dr. Chow, perhaps there is someone local out there right now who can be an education leader in Muncie. Is anyone getting ready to stand up? Dave Collins literally stood up at the end of the MCS board announcement about Southside closing. Are there others ready to stand up?

MFP is All About You

I've gone on and on this week, but I still don't think I've said all that I want to say or what needs to be said about education in Muncie. When there are rumors of the state taking over and busses going away, it's time to get worried and act. I will most likely come back to Muncie schools and education in this column frequently in the coming months and years because I think it is such an important topic.

And as Muncie Free Press' resources grow, I will ensure that more of them are put to helping our city by being an online news community - a place to share ideas and come up with solutions, something much more than yesterday's news printed on dead trees. The future is journalism as a conversation.

The current state of public education in Muncie may be dire, but let it be the next "downtown blight" and "urban sprawl" problem that the community tackles as one. Perhaps a little like all the love going into the Old West End neighborhood currently. I love this city because it has so much going for it. While I may curse the trains as they stop on the tracks or blow their whistles or slow me down occasionally, Muncie means a lot to me.

If you have any thoughts about education in Muncie or want to offer suggestions or ideas, feel free to leave a comment or contact us. As an online news community and not simply a newspaper, we are here to truly serve the community.

And to do this means we have to not only report the news but engage the citizens - readers like YOU - on an ongoing basis. The future of journalism, the media, and Muncie are all bright. If you agree or disagree, we'd love to hear from you. Thanks for your time.

Your friendly neighborhood publisher,
K. Paul Mallasch

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