I spent part of Friday afternoon with Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, a leader I've criticized recently for the process he used to put together his new reform plan for the Cleveland schools. He might have changed my mind. Either way, I left our interview with considerably more optimism than I had previously.

A few weeks back, I said that the schools plan should have involved more community members at the outset, as true collaborators, rather than as mere respondents who will vote yea or nay on the upcoming levy. I still believe that could have happened. It would have taken a lot longer than this process, but it might have had more buy-in. In writing that, though, I was really only speaking from my own perspective, as someone who wasn't part of the process, has never sat in labor negotiations, never stood in front of a room full of parents who are more concerned with the proximity of a school than the quality of the education it delivers. And I'm not the Mayor of Cleveland in the last half of my second term.

I'd encourage you to give this a listen. We were only supposed to speak for fifteen minutes. You can see how well that worked out. Around 13 minutes in or so, I ask him about the criticisms.

"I make no apologies," he said. "I'm trying to get something done. I'm not trying to be politically correct or soothe anyone's feathers. That's how we got in the predicament we're in now." He went on to say, "I'm calling the roll."

It was an interesting moment, and what he seems to be saying is something I cannot disagree with. Having an opinion about this plan and about the future of our schools isn't optional. We all have a stake, and the mayor's saying that pretending to not have an opinion is still an action here. Given the size and symbolic importance of Cleveland and the school district, he's right. If you live in Cuyahoga County or a neighboring county, your connection to the fate of this school district is too obvious to point out. Anywhere else in the state, you're looking at an experiment that, if successful, will create a path for other urban school districts in Ohio. From anywhere else in the country, how Cleveland turns its schools around is part of the national dialogue about turning around struggling school systems in LA, Chicago, New York, Detroit, Cleveland, New Orleans, everywhere.

I'll tell you what made me optimistic. I think for the mayor, there's nothing more important than fixing the school system. And he's clearly enjoying this work. As he talked about the plan and what it has taken to bring the parties to the table, to bring the plan to Columbus, to duke it out in the media, he smiled. After six years of managing others, he is enjoying the opportunity to try to fix a Big Problem. And after I turned off the recorder (this always happens), he told me that fixing the schools is actually why he'll run for a third term. He doesn't want to leave it unfinished. And it's about time this business was finished.

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Copyright © 2012 Dan Moulthrop; available under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License.

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