VOICES: Urban districts have so many challenges that other districts do not

Dayton school board: William Harris

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Dayton school board: William Harris

As I approach the end of my tenure on the Dayton City Schools Board, I want to express how much of an honor it was to serve this district and community. The people of Dayton demonstrated their faith in me as I received the most votes and as I ran on a ticket with three very competent individuals: Paul Bradley, Mohamed Al-Hamdoni, and Karen-Wick Gagnet. Three of us won a seat on the board in 2017. Because of a residency issue, I was voted by the board to serve out the tenure of the then-president, so I began my journey in November of 2017, instead of January, 2018.

My first board meeting was six hours long. That night, the board put the then-superintendent on paid administrative leave and appointed an interim superintendent, Dr. Elizabeth Lolli. I asked myself, “what have I gotten myself into?”

Having two sons who graduated from DPS, I knew first-hand some of the challenges that DPS faced, but I had no idea at the time the full extent of the up-hill struggles facing an urban public school district of nearly 13,000 students.

Urban districts have so many challenges that other districts don’t. For example, woefully inadequate funding from the state. Second, many urban students come to school already two to three grades behind, academically. Third, it is virtually impossible to overcome the challenges associated with students living in poverty. The median income of our families is often 10 times below that of some suburban communities. Finally, it is extremely difficult to find and retain high quality teachers and staff when other districts can pay more for a less stressful job.

I believe that the average person has no clue of the role and responsibility of a school board member. A school board member’s primary role is to hire a superintendent and treasurer and to evaluate their performance — not to micro-manage the district.

For me, the learning curve was great. I came into this position relatively unaware of how a school districts operates, which means that I had to quickly educate myself on the Ohio Revised Code, Sunshine Laws and the legislative side of education. One of the greatest challenges an urban district faces is the many bargaining units, i.e. unions. DPS has at least eight. If you have a desire to become a school board member, you best acquaint yourself with the above as well as litigation, trial law and definitely brush up on finances. Not only did I have to be a quick study, but I was thrust into the Presidency and the responsibilities that came with that role.

Of the many challenges we faced, none were more serious than the threat of academic takeover. With an intentional effort to enhance the curriculum and to concentrate on truancy, we were able to avert the takeover. But there were other challenges, too: sports-related, financial, internal and external battles, transportation, staff turnover, and finally, COVID. The one thing you can be sure of is that there will always be more challenges for an urban district to face. Being a school board member is not for the faint at heart. The decisions that a board member directly impacts families and the community.

I want to first thank the many colleagues with whom I have had the privilege to serve. It has been a pleasure striving to do what’s best for our children. Secondly, I want to acknowledge the many committed and dedicated employees of DPS, from the custodians, to the bus drivers, to the paraprofessionals, to the bargaining units, the administrators, the teachers, the nutrition staff, the SRO’s, principals, assistant principles, coaches, nurses, and most of all: our precious students and families. Last, but not least, I want to acknowledge the capable leadership of Dr. Elizabeth Lolli. It has been a pleasure to witness your unwavering dedication to the task of educating young people.

Dr. William E. Harris, Jr. has served on the Dayton Board of Education since 2018. He did not run again this year.

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