With more work to be done, an Ohio district’s only out school board member launches reelection bid

“When Trump was elected, it became very clear that the only way I could make the world slightly better is by working at the local level.”

Malia Lewis had thought about running for school board for years.

Active in the PTA since her two children (now in college) were in preschool, she had long been working to improve the local public schools they attended, but work and life kept her from taking the next big step.

Then the 2016 election happened.

“When Donald Trump was elected, it became very clear that the only way I could make the world slightly better is by working at the local level. That was sort of my catalyst – if I’m going to do it, I’ve got to do it now,” she says.

And she did…successfully at that! In 2017, Lewis became the first out gay woman elected to the school board in Cleveland’s Cleveland Heights-University Heights district. Now up for reelection, she’s running first and foremost on the accomplishments of her first term. But, as a gay woman with African American kids, she also understands the importance of representation.

“I have a long history of trying to represent the person who’s not at the table.”

The Buckeye Flame spoke with the incumbent about the work of her first term and her hopes for her second.

Tell us about your start in local politics.
I had been thinking about running for school board for years, but the time wasn’t right for various reasons – my children were too young, we were dealing with family crises. When Donald Trump was elected, it became very clear that the only way I could make the world slightly better is by working at the local level.

On the one hand, [running for office in 2017] was slightly terrifying; on the other, it was for me more of the same – going out and meeting people and talking about the schools and how to make the school district better for all of our students. But running for public office was sort of terrifying because it puts a level of public scrutiny on you that you might not have had before.

What do you consider your proudest accomplishments so far as a school board member?
I’ve cut the district’s budget by a cumulative $5.2 million over three years. I’ve hired the best superintendent we could find in a national search. I’ve successfully negotiated a very difficult union contract with our teacher’s union. That contract was actually ratified by 94% of the members of the teacher’s union, so it couldn’t have been all bad, right?

I’ve also been a very loud voice in Columbus advocating for our district and all public schools when it comes to pulling EdChoice vouchers out of the Deduct Model and advocating for the Fair School Funding Plan. We’re not 100% there, but we got 80% into the budget this year, so I’m happy with that. 

What will your main priorities be if reelected?
We have to figure out how to reverse the trend of students leaving the district and going to parochial or private school, and taking their EdChoice dollars with them. Our district is number one on the list of school districts in the state hemorrhaging money to EdChoice vouchers – not a list you want to be on! We have to figure out how to improve the image of our schools so families will at least look at us and see what we’re doing. Great things are happening in the buildings, but if you don’t go in the building, you don’t know that.

Another high priority is facing and fixing the achievement gap between our African American students and our white students, our special ed students and our regular ed students, our English-speaking students and our English-learning students. There are measurable performance gaps between these sub groups, which the state Department of Education measures versus the general population, and their assumption is the general population is white. That’s not the case in our majority-minority district, where the majority of students are not white. If you don’t look the ugly numbers in the face, you can ignore the problem, and we’ve been doing that for too long.

Currently, you’re the only out school board member in your district, and when elected in 2017, you became the first. What advice would you give to a young, LGBTQ+ person who’s interested in running for office?
First, you’ve got to care about what you’re running for. Don’t run as a stepping stone to a different office or something else. Schools is where I fit. I believe public education is at the root of American democracy; our students need that education so they can become informed and involved citizens. That’s why I put in 20-30 hours a week for school board, basically for free. So, whether you’re running for city council or transportation advisory committee – whatever it is, it has to be something you care about enough that you’re willing to put in the work.

The second piece of advice is just do it. The only way to make the world a better place is affecting change in our realm – if you are touching some piece of public government, that’s where you can make change. 🔥

Ignite Action:

  • Learn more about Malia Lewis and her bid for Cleveland Heights-University Heights Board of Education by visiting her 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.

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