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Area school board members struggle with smaller budgets, effects of school choice

By admin Published: November 7, 2011

Mary Lou Dodson's interest in school issues started years ago when her daughter was a freshman in high school and taking a science course that had no permanent teacher for six weeks.

Dodson attended a school board meeting to raise concerns. And by the end of the meeting, she decided that she could make a difference as a member of the board.

That was 31 years ago and today, after years of politics and debates, Dodson is now president of the Springfield Local School Board.

Even after all this time, Dodson said, she still feels like she can affect change and points to the construction of a high school as an example.

Dodson is among those on the front line of a challenging time for school boards in the state. Much of their time is spent managing budget shortfalls, battling dwindling enrollment and fighting for students being lured by charter and private schools.

On paper, the Ohio School Board Association says a school board member helps set educational goals and establishes policy for a school system based upon state laws and community values.

Although their regular duties are simply to attend one or two meetings a month, typically for pay of about $100 a meeting, these board members find themselves doing a lot more.

''We roll with the changes,'' Dodson said. ''You have to.''

Dodson said her motivation to remain on the board long after her own children have moved on is a love of public education.

But far too often, she said, much of the time is spent on financial issues.

Lisa Mansfield, a member of the Akron Board of Education, also laments the amount of time she and other board members spend on financial issues.

''Finance is a huge issue,'' Mansfield said. ''I wish it was an issue we didn't have, but it's always been there.''

She said school finances are constantly changing and a big contributing factor in Akron has been the growth of charter schools.

''They [charter schools] have a marketing budget that they can put towards a name like 'Hope' and 'Imagine,' '' Mansfield said. ''Those names can catch people's attention.''

A bright sign, Mansfield said, is that many of the students who leave the district often return.

''What parents are then finding out is that after two or three years their child isn't thriving in the charter school,'' Mansfield said. ''So then we get them back, but they are several years behind their peers and we have to catch them up.

''It's a strange thing to compete with someone who is taking funding and children and then giving back a product that they are not keeping up with.''

At the same time the board is forced to make cuts, Mansfield said, there is pressure to meet or exceed state academic standards.

''Compared to the big eight [Cleveland, Canton, Cincinnati, Columbus, Youngstown, Dayton, Toledo and Akron] we are doing well,'' Mansfield said. ''We want to be compared to the rest of Summit County and the rest of Northeast Ohio, and we are making strides.''

Like Akron, one of Springfield's big issues is declining enrollment.

''There are not a lot of jobs, so people begin to leave the district,'' Dodson said.

Springfield plans to close Roosevelt Elementary as it works on the new high school.

''This [construction] is the highlight of my experience here as a school board member,'' Dodson said. ''It is definitely a wonderful thing that people put their trust in the school board to deliver them a good school.''

Cindy Collins, a Springfield board member since 2009, is proud that the district is bouncing back from a state-imposed ''fiscal emergency.''

''We are managing to live within our means,'' Collins said. ''Having a bond issue on the ballot pass the first time and putting a levy on there and not having it pass five times shows what the parents and people want.''

''People hold us responsible for what we spend,'' Dodson said. ''Sometimes they get a little ticked on what we don't spend.''

A key to a successful board, Dodson and Collins agree, is being able to work together and with the superintendent.

''We all have our opinions,'' Collins said. ''But we listen to each other and end up making good decisions.''

Mansfield said she works to ensure everyone's voice is heard.

''The most wonderful part about being a member is being a voice for the little people,'' Mansfield said. ''And those little people include the 6-foot-3 juniors and seniors all the way down to the little Head Start kids.''

For Mansfield, real success comes at graduation, whether it be in spring or fall, for those high school students who needed summer classes to graduate.

''To look out in the crowd and watch their parents cheer for them is worth every second.''

The NewsOutlet is a joint media venture by student and professional journalists and is a collaboration of Youngstown State University, Kent State and the University of Akron, the Akron Beacon Journal, the Canton Repository, Rubber City Radio, WYSU radio and the Youngstown Vindicator.

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