Public school advocacy: passing the torch
I’ve been a public school activist since 1976. That’s a long time.
Each year it gets harder to go to meetings—the bread and butter of any grassroots engagement! So, when the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Council of PTAs-sponsored candidates’ night for the CH-UH Board of Education rolled around on Oct. 3, I didn’t want to go.
The meeting was right up the street at Boulevard Elementary School, so I had no excuse. This is my school. I’ve been a volunteer there since my daughter started kindergarten in 1988. It has always been my most authentic source of connection to public education and inspiration about the work that teachers do every day, and it was hard to ignore the invitation to attend from fellow Boulevard enthusiast Kristi Bidinger. I headed up to school.
As is always the case, once I arrived I was glad I had left home. So much happens when people who care about their community come together.
This was a meeting for parents. As the oldest person there, I could have been the parent of most of those in attendance. The turnout was thrilling. The younger generation had overcome their own barriers to leaving home, so they could become informed about the candidates who want to lead the school district that their children attend.
Food and socializing preceded the business meeting. The sponsors smartly used the event for community building among the many individual school communities that make up our Tiger Nation. Most loyalty begins with your school, but that night they were there out of shared interest in their school district. They were in this together!
Organizers offered heartfelt welcomes to the audience and the four candidates who are running for three spots that will open in January when the terms of Ron Register, Kal Zucker and Eric Silverman end. Combined, these three veteran decisionmakers have 40 years of experience in policymaking, financial stewardship, interfacing between the community and the school administration, looking out for the interests of our students and doing their best to make the district a great resource for our community. Whoever is elected will mark the beginning of a new era.
I spotted board members Jim Posch and Beverly Wright. When the new board is seated they will be the source of experience—with just four years of it between them. For the audience it was a chance to get a closer look at new leaders, while the board members were getting to know their future colleagues.
The questions were good and the responses were thoughtful. Their stump speeches and responses provided insight into their individual strengths, potential contributions and perspectives. The PTA had provided a format that was comfortable enough to let the candidates be themselves.
The four candidates—Tiera Briggs, Dan Heintz, Malia Lewis and Jodi Sourini—are all parents of children in the district. They agreed on many issues and often built off each other’s answers. They were never disrespectful of each other. The forum was not only informing the audience but seemed to be building understanding among members of a new team whose exact membership is yet to be determined. They came across as collaborators, not competitors. This is important for a job that depends on listening, learning and weighing options. The more the members know and trust each other, the more they will hear and consider different perspectives so together they can make better decisions.
My career and my personal life have been dedicated to uplifting the importance of public education in a democracy. I have focused on our school district and our responsibility as citizens to contribute to the success and stature of our local branch of public education, the Heights schools. It makes sense for me to remain focused on this issue, because I am part of the public that benefits from public education, but all effective advocacy relies on perpetual engagement of new voices.
I was reassured that evening that the next generation is invested! Whether there as a candidate or a voter, they had taken up advocacy for the common good. They stepped up to be elected leaders and a community that owns its schools.
I left the meeting happy. The school board’s old guard is passing the leadership torch to a fresh and thoughtful lineup of concerned parents and citizens. As a member of the community’s old guard, I could see that a new generation of invested parents is owning and aiding our schools. They have taken up the torch of community commitment to the common good—the Cleveland Heights-University Heights public schools.
Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights and former director of Reaching Heights. She serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.