CLEVELAND — As students, educators and parents adjust to the newly consolidated Cleveland Public School District, what began as rumblings of discontent with the new administration has escalated into a movement.
Mississippi Today spoke with more than a dozen parents and current and former employees about their concerns, which range from what they say is a lack of transparency, incompetence and irresponsible spending on the part of the administration and the school board. The administration says the community is just resistant to change.
“What we’re going through is change. And you know, people don’t like change,” said George Evans, the board’s current chair and longtime member. Evans was also referring to the consolidation of the district’s majority Black schools and historically white schools in 2017.
But many, including current and former employees, parents and community members, say it’s not change they’re resisting. They question whether the new superintendent is qualified for the job and take issue with decisions he’s made since coming to the district.
First he cut pre-K classes. Then the district delayed handing out new devices to students to take home during the pandemic. And as the district reeled from a reduction in force and budget cuts, the school board approved a $22,500 raise in the superintendent’s salary and hired an outside public relations firm for $80,000 a year.
Otha Belcher began his tenure as superintendent of the Cleveland Public School District in June of 2019 after serving two years as an assistant superintendent in Jackson Public School District. He worked for several years in the Vicksburg Warren and Hinds County school districts prior to that.
At a recent community meeting at the middle school, Belcher touted his “history of turning around schools.”
“I have a long history of turning schools and districts around,” he told the 60 or so parents, teachers and community members in the audience. “A lot of it.”
He served his longest stint as an administrator when he was an assistant principal at Byram Middle School from July of 2010 to December of 2013. Over the course of his time there, the district did increase from a “successful” school to a “high performing” school, or the equivalent of a C to a B in today’s accountability model.
But while the principal at Vicksburg Junior High from January 2014 to June 2015, the school didn’t see any improvement in its accountability rating. In fact, without the waiver granted by the state in the 2014-2015 school year due to a change in the accountability rating system, the school would have fallen from a C to a D.
While Belcher was curriculum director in Vicksburg, it remained a D-rated school district, though Jackson Public School District did increase from an F to a D during the two years Belcher was an assistant superintendent.
Evans, the board president, said the board hired Belcher because he was “young and vibrant” and the district needed a change.
“He was positive, and we were tired of the same old results we were getting over the past 10 to 15 years, so we decided it was time for a change,” said Evans, who has served on the school board for 20 years.
When asked if there was something in particular about his experience that stood out to Evans or made him think he would be a good fit for Cleveland, he responded, “No.”
One of Belcher’s first major actions as superintendent was to cut the district’s pre-kindergarten classes.
Belcher instituted a “reduction in force” in the 2020-2021 school year in an effort to save $1.7 million as a result of fewer students enrolling in the district that year. When he announced he’d be cutting some pre-kindergarten classes in an attempt to save money, parents were outraged.
Many pointed out the inequity of the decision, which put the pre-K classes at the two higher performing elementary schools, and took them away from Nailor and Parks Elementary schools, which are lower performing and have more low-income students.
Todd Davis, a parent of a child in the district, said his and other parents’ attempts to work with Belcher to identify other ways to cut costs turned into “a fire.” He said they identified several places to cut costs, including at the parent resource center, which Davis said had a full staff but no measurable objectives or outcomes.
Davis said cutting those pre-K classes put up barriers for poorer families who can’t afford to drive to the remaining classes, which are further away from the city of Cleveland.
When asked if pre-K access concerns him, Belcher said no.
“No, I mean the parents at those two schools that we did get rid of — they had a chance to go to either one of those (other schools),” he said.
There are 110 pre-K students in five classes this year, up from 105 students last year, according to Belcher. He also said the district is planning to add an additional class in the 2022-2023 school year back at Parks or Nailor Elementary Schools.
At the same time the debate was heating up over pre-K, Belcher was working on other methods to cut costs. In late 2020, he asked principals to identify ways to save money, a former principal said.
“I literally spent my Christmas break going through numbers, looking at my teacher units, class sizes, and seeing where I can cut,” the former principal said.
Belcher told Mississippi Today the funds were ultimately saved by not filling open positions in the school, among other measures. He said he did not believe any of the cuts impacted students’ academics and resources.
The principal, who spoke anonymously because of fear of retribution at his job in a new school district, said that was not the case.
“When you’re in a high poverty school, you need those additional supports to build up your academics … and that was being taken away,” he said. “It was just very detrimental to us.”
While the district was still reeling from the budget cuts and reduction of the pre-K program, the school board extended Belcher’s contract and issued him a substantial raise.
In July of 2021, the school board approved a $11,200 raise for Belcher for the 2021-2022 school year. The addendum to his original contract also shows the board approved another $11,300 raise for the following school year, bringing his annual salary up from $117,500 in 2019 to $140,000 in the 2022-2023 school year.
George Evans, the board president, said the board was simply bringing Belcher’s salary in line with superintendents of similarly sized school districts in the area.
“There’s been unrest for a few years, but the big turning point was when he was signed on to a new contract,” said Gabby Hays, the parent of an elementary school student in the district.
Teachers who spoke to Mississippi Today said when they heard of the contract renewal and raise, they were furious.
“What warrants him getting the raise? We got our $1,000 extra a year (from the state-funded teacher pay raise), but our insurance goes up, deductible goes up — we don’t see it (the money),” one said.
When asked when the last time teachers received a district-issued raise was, Evans and another school board member, Todd Fuller, did not respond.
Current and former district staff say there were other problems that led to large turnover.
Morgan Dean, a former principal at two schools in Cleveland, had been in the district nine years before he resigned in December of 2019.
Under Belcher’s leadership, he said, principals were being micromanaged.
He said the administration changed the teacher observation process to a tedious series of tasks. The process required principals to complete three teacher observations a week and write a two-page report for each, one of which would be submitted to the central office for review.
“We had to include references to articles and theory, and we were given a rubric as administrators” they would be judged by, said Dean.
“I don’t have any problem with being critiqued but that particular process was laborious and served very little purpose in improving schools or teachers. Teachers don’t have a lot of time to read two-page essays, so that’s really not best practice.”
Dean, who is one of a number of principals who have left the district since Belcher arrived, said he felt targeted by the new administration.
“There’s a habit in education where you force people out by making them extremely uncomfortable while making it clear they’re not wanted,” he said.
Another former principal, who spoke to Mississippi Today anonymously to protect his new job, echoed Dean.
The principal said he often asked for programs which never came about. Then, when he would ask about their status, it was as if the conversation had never occurred.
“We were doing a lot of stuff I would call window dressing,” he said. “It looked good, but it didn’t mean anything. When we’d bring concerns, they were completely discounted.”
Both said they’d never struggled to work with former superintendents before Belcher.
Dean, along with several other current and former employees who spoke with Mississippi Today, said they saw many administrators and teachers leave after Belcher arrived.
“I have never seen that kind of turnover,” one former employee who’d been with the district more than 30 years, said.
But Belcher said staff turnover is no more than in previous years. When asked for the numbers, the district said it does not have them on hand, but this reporter could go through monthly meeting minutes to calculate resignations and terminations.
“There hasn’t been an abnormally large turnover,” he said. “People are retiring, people changing professions because of the pressure, and we’ve had people leave for better opportunities,” he said. “But we’re doing fine. Actually, some of the superintendents around have asked me ‘How do you keep the people?’”
Parents say they became frustrated with the administration during the pandemic. When schools first closed, students learning virtually struggled without access to devices to take home from the district. Despite the rollout of enough devices for every student in the state, there was a major lag in the district’s distribution of the devices.
A few months into the pandemic, Lindsey Wright had three school-age children at home. She was unemployed after she lost her job as a result of the virus, and money was tight.
Take-home paper packets from teachers stopped being an option for her kids, all of whom are students in the district, in April of 2020. So she tried purchasing a late generation iPad for $80, but it didn’t work. She ended up borrowing the money to buy one laptop for her children to share and used her phone’s hotspot for Internet connection.
As the months of 2020 rolled on, the district still didn’t issue its students the devices that were delivered in the fall of that year.
Throughout the school year her children were distance learning, Wright kept asking administrators at Pearman Elementary School and Cleveland Central High School where the laptops were.
All three of her children failed that school year.
Her neighbor Tanisha Lewis faced the same challenge with her third grader. When she went to purchase a device for her virtual learner, the stores were out of stock.
Each day, Wright had to “choose which child I wanted to have an education, and it was wrong,” she said.
Lewis said her daughter’s grades dropped “dramatically.”
Belcher told Mississippi Today the devices weren’t distributed to any students to take home because they didn’t arrive “white gloved,” or tagged and cased with packaging materials removed and devices already joined to the district network. He later clarified that a majority of the computers were white-gloved but did not have cases.
The devices that arrived without proper tags and cases were ordered independent of the Mississippi Department of Education’s program, which delivered devices ready to be distributed.
“We were already short on our technology department, so what we had to do was make it all inventoried,” said Belcher. That included three technology staff members manually tagging the more than 2,000 devices.
He said he chose to only distribute the devices to the schools, and not make them available for students to take home, in the spring of 2021 due to an upcoming audit by the state education department. The Chromebooks were just made available for students to take home — for a $25 annual fee — in September 2021.
“We were just not sending anything home because we knew MDE was coming to do an audit.”
But according to the Mississippi Department of Education, there was no audit of the district.
“I have no idea what that is,” said John Kraman, chief information officer for the department, when asked about what the district said was an “MDE Chromebook audit” that occurred in May. “We don’t do Chromebook audits.”
Concern about the new administration’s decisions reached its summit in mid-September this year when two students were arrested on the Cleveland Central High School campus after organizing a protest of the district’s dress code and cafeteria food.
Parents questioned why law enforcement was involved, and the district defended its decision. It’s unclear what the students were charged with, but a statement put out by the district said a school resource officer called in back-up from the Cleveland Police Department “due to the continued breach of the peace and use of insulting/profane language.”
After the incident, a group of five parents and community members started a Facebook group called “Reform Cleveland Schools.” Within weeks, the group had grown to nearly 700 members.
LaDonne Sterling, a former employee of the district and parent of two children in the schools, said there has been a breakdown of trust.
“Now that the disconnection is known, it’s noticeable. It’s hard to go and gain that trust back from the parents and the community,” said Sterling.
But the purpose of the Reform Cleveland Schools group is to try, she said. And there are positive things happening — notably, that Belcher has agreed to meet monthly with the leaders of the group.
Voters will also get the chance to elect a new school board member Nov. 2.
Candidates running to replace current board member Tonya Short held a question and answer session with community members last week. Short was not present at the meeting.
Before the session ended, one audience member asked the candidates: ”What are we going to do to get back to effective schools, period? To make sure our schools are ready to run and the school board won’t have to constantly fix it, fix it, fix it?”
Candidate Paulette Howze’s answer focused on the importance of quality leadership.
“It starts at the head. As plain as I can say it,” she told the crowd. “… And it all goes back to accountability — whether we, as a board, are holding that person accountable.”