Top level state and local officials are to meet tomorrow in a last-minute effort to keep open the city's public school system in the wake of a lopsided defeat of a 9.9-mill operating levy Thursday.
The emergency session with U.S. District Court Judge Frank Battisti, who is empowered to close the schools if no money is found to operate them, will focus on a possible "advance" of state aid to keep the 111,000-pupil system open through the current school year.
The levy's defeat by nearly a 2-1 vote is being read here as a strong racial backlash to a court-ordered school desegregation plan that is to go into effect in Septemver. White west side boters, apparently angered by the prospect of a busing under the court order, turned down the levy by a 5-1 majority.
At the same time, black east side voters supported it by more than 6,000 votes.
In financial terms, the outcome denied the schools $30 million in additional annual revenue over a five-year period and heigthened the chaos in which school officials have been working for more than a year.
They have been beset by interrelated problems.
Although the system is $22 million in debt, Battisti has ordered the schools to stay open, in an apparent attempt to force a solution.
The city's 11,000 school employees have been working without pay for more than a week.
There has been public outcry that the schools could be kept open if it were not for "bad management" that, for example, keeps open low-enrollment schools.
Cleveland banks have turned down the school board's appeals for allowance to cover the current deficit.
And Mayor Dennis kucinich, who has a recall campaign going against him, refused to take a public position on the levy. (His aides said the mayor believes voters ought to decide for themselves whether they want to raise their taxes.)
School officials, however, seized on the desegregation order as the central factor in the levy's defeat. Said Cleveland Board of Education member George Dobrea, the boards finance chairman: 'I am afraid the people voted their prejudices . . . desegregation, antibusing and higher taxes - and the latter is the least important."
Board Chairman Arnold Pinkney reflected the same attitude. "The vote on the west side speaks for itself," he said. "I wouldn't speculate beyond that."
Until officials are able to work out a plan that would give the schools long-term financial stability - an enormous undertaking given the current mood of the public - their best hope for short-term relief apparently lies in the state legislature. But even there, state officials are saying that one solution is as bad as another.
Last year, lawmakers - some reluctantly - enacted special legislation giving the Cleveland schools authority to borrow from banks beyond the schools' statutory loan limit. But the banks refused to go along.
State Sen. Oliver Ocasek, the majority leader and a widely respected authority on school finances, said at the time that he was in favor of the bank loan practice, but resigned himself to it on a one-time basis to kep the schools open.
Now, Ocasek and other legislative leaders find themselves at another plateau in the schools's call for help. Ocasek said yesterday that he still opposes a borrowing scheme to bail out the schools because it conditions the voters to continue to reject levies. (The Cleveland school board said it would put still another levy on the ballot in June.)
"I'm not a magician," says Ocasek. ""I do not have a solution to the problem. There's no other way to get the money except from the voters and from the state. And the state simply does not have the money."
To support his agrument that the crisis must ultimately be resloved by the voters, Ocasek noted that the state had increased it appropriations for public schools by 120 percent over the past six years. Duting the same period, local funding increased 38 percent.
The only short-term solution, which Ocasek says he doesn't like either, is an advance of state money that will be due the schools later this year.
Borrowing against the future, Ocasek says, is no solution, either. "We would only be biding time," he said.