Thursday, February 23, 2012

Richmond Hts. School Board takes step to end Hardwick era Part I

Richmond Hts. School Board takes step to end Hardwick era
Part I

The Richmond Heights Board of Education is expected to vote tonight not to renew the contract of superintendent Linda T. Hardwick when it expires July 31. The vote will take place in executive session at a 7PM special meeting called for this purpose.

Dr. Hardwick has been on paid administrative leave since November after a tumultuous two year in which a majority of the board seemed bent on thwarting her efforts to improve the quality of education in the small and shrinking school district.

In a city that is roughly fifty percent white, only about half of the school age population of approximately 1900 students attend the city’s public schools. Most white parents and a sizable number of black ones choose from an array of charter, parochial, other public, or private schools, or undertake to educate their children at home.

Leadership issues are key to the district’s woes, which also include a worn out physical plant, outdated textbooks, tightening financial straights, an anxious and disengaged faculty, and what has increasingly come to be seen as a hostile environment for the captive African American students and those administrators who are seen as sympathetic to the students.

Most of these problems have been a decade or more in the making. Voters rejected seven school levies in succession, a short but bitter teachers strike in 2007 resolved no key issues, and the district continued to unravel under the comings and goings of a host of new union leaders [five in five years], superintendents [four in seven years], and a school board that often seemed in need of musical chairs with training wheels.

The problems of the Richmond Schools are not isolated to the district’s single campus, which is effectively hidden away — it almost seems by design — behind a brand new municipal complex. The sparkling new city hall that shows its rear to the schools boasts a part-time mayor whose twenty year tenure is as tired as his city’s schools, though he pretends the school district’s sickness is unrelated to his city’s maladies. A lifetime company lawyer in his day job, Mayor Daniel Ursu seems wholly unsuited for the challenges of what are likely his final years in office. Colleagues describe him as secretive and conflict-averse, a fact this reporter observed first-hand in the mayor’s repeated refusals to be interviewed, even scurrying away on one occasion into the safety of City Hall and hastily locking the door behind him.

[It has been reported to us that the mayor, as he seeks to shape his legacy, is now in the midst of a fevered attempt to shred thirteen years of public records pertaining to his administration. His efforts, while apparently legal, do raise questions as to his rationale, since he reportedly has never bothered to dispose of a single record during his tenure.]

But while the mayor personifies Alice-in-Wonderland municipal leadership, it is Jason Popp,  a long time physical education teacher and current head of the teacher’s union, who brought instant notoriety upon the school district and hence the city when he was accused last January of perpetrating regular emotional abuse of the boys varsity basketball team. His alleged repeated belittling of his players’, their families, heritage, intellect, and morals — allegations which he has never denied and all but admitted — led to a revolt by the players and their parents, who presented school authorities with a choice: either replace the coach immediately or the team would boycott the remainder of their then undefeated season.  

After meeting with all parties over the next few days — players, parents, the coach, other administrators, and a few school board members — Superintendent Hardwick essentially put Popp on paid administrative leave from coaching in early February 2011. In so doing, she unknowingly put her own career as a first-time superintendent on the accelerated track leading to tonight’s expected action.

I previously reported on much of this last year in posts between May and November. As it appears that matters have gotten increasingly grave and are now coming to a head, I wanted to provide a summary that would prepare readers for what I believe is on the horizon. Part II will appear tomorrow.

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