This November, voters in the Cleveland Heights-University Heights district will elect three members to the school board; one of the candidates, educator Mario Clopton-Zymler, could become the first out, Black man to serve in this role.
“Right now, only one of the five school board members is of color in a district where four out of five of our students are Black,” says Clopton-Zymler, who lives in Cleveland Heights with his husband, Ryan, and is a doctoral candidate studying education leadership at Ohio University. “Representation matters. A Black, queer, intersectional voice is needed on our board.”
The Buckeye Flame spoke with the candidate about his journey to this campaign and what he hopes to accomplish if elected.
Why school board and why now?
My life’s work has been education and public schools. I am starting my twelfth year as a teacher, and I am a doctoral candidate studying education leadership. I am passionate about the intersection between how we educate children, the policies that drive that education, and the systemic racism and oppression that exists in our society.
The opportunity for a school board seat opened up in the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district, where my husband and I are now homeowners. Currently, only one of the five board members is of color in a district where four out of five of our students are Black. Representation matters. With three incumbents, and three available seats, I decided now was the time. I am qualified – I would argue more qualified than the other candidates – to step into this role, as a Black, queer, intersectional voice.
What are some of the specific issues facing the district that you hope to tackle in this position?
Making the board’s decision-making as transparent as possible will be a focus of mine. The school board obviously follows Sunshine Laws, but I argue that Sunshine Laws are the floor and not the ceiling. For example, we can also allow public comment at every public school board meeting, which is not currently a practice.
I really want to focus on our education equity policy. Cleveland Heights-University Heights was one of the first school districts in the area to implement a board-approved education equity policy. It’s a good start, but I want to push further by including tenets of antiracism and making sure we’re acknowledging the intersections that affect Black children and children from underrepresented minority groups in the schools.
I also want to acknowledge that our schools have always been proud of the arts programs available to our students, and to make sure we are making those arts programs equitably accessible to all students at all schools – and in all formats of schooling, since we are now starting to get into the idea of having a virtual-only school option.
Finally, making sure union negotiations are built on trust is going to be a priority for me as well. We have a community-dividing issue in our district where we don’t have a lot of industry, so our tax base is based on residential properties, and with the school funding not changing as fast as needed at the state level, it puts a big tax burden on our residents, so we have to have school levies more often here than in other comparable districts. People look at the unions and say the schools aren’t doing so well; why are we giving you benefits? I completely disagree with that equation. We have quality teaching; the kids are learning. Also, I believe unions, as it relates to an equity issue, are a great way to get people of color out of poverty.
In 2020, you ran for Cleveland City Council Ward 4. That bid was ultimately unsuccessful, but I’m sure instructive. How has that experience factored into this campaign?
The best thing I learned was to really take the time to introduce myself to the various communities of the area I want to represent – deep dive conversations with people who have lived in the area for years, for folks who just moved in, with community stakeholders and community leaders. I’ve had a couple of meet-and-greets, and out of the people who come to those, I ask if someone will host an event in their neighborhood, then I ask someone from that event to host one for me in their neighborhood, and so on, block by block. It works!
Voter turnout in Cuyahoga County is among the lowest in the state; what can candidates do to get more people to come out and vote?
In many respects, your universe of likely voters in an odd-year election is super low. You have to balance between making sure you are speaking to the people you know for sure are going to come out while also creating a new universe of people. The way you do that, again, is by having those direct conversations with folks in the community.
People are passionate about schools. Very few people know the ins and outs of the school board, but in these conversations you may chat with a parent who may not be a consistent off-year voter but who is very passionate about their kids’ education and will go out and vote for you just because of that conversation. It’s a matter of bringing the issues to the person.
If elected, you will be the first out gay Black man elected to the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School Board. What would that mean for you personally and for your community?
It’s like being out Black and gay as a teacher. You don’t know what your presence in a room does for other people; for my students, for community members. You have some people who come back and say you were the first gay person I got to interact with and the way you talk about advocating for LGBTQ+ rights changed my thinking on some things. And there are people you never get to hear from, but whose lives you change nonetheless just by living out and proud of your queerness, your Blackness, just your being.
I want our students to see me be the son of a single mom, raised by grandparents, with dreads and cornrows who happens to be a doctoral candidate, who started out like a solid C student in reading and writing, but who is persevering now, representing the schools as a qualified candidate and member of the school board. I want them to see me being very Black, and very gay. And hopefully that helps them see themselves doing similar things in their lives one day.
- Learn more about Mario Clopton-Zmbler and his bid for Cleveland Heights-University Heights Board of Education by visiting his website or Facebook page.
- Check ohvotes.org to make sure you are registered to vote and update your voter registration address.
- After checking your voter registration, check out Cleveland VOTES’ 2021 #Commit2CLE Toolkit to learn HOW to ACTivate. There you will find a series of programs, resources, and tools partners use to ACTivate their constituents and help get others to vote.
- For nonprofit organizations servicing the Greater Cleveland area, check out the Equitable Civic Engagement Fund, a grant opportunity to help educate, connect and empower voting age residents in the Greater Cleveland area.