Fast-growing Twinsburg is challenged by diversity

 
Monday, May 10, 2004
April McClellan-Copeland

Plain Dealer Reporter

Twinsburg

Ron and Tonya Smith moved to Twinsburg three years ago because it was a diverse community where they could escape high taxes in Shaker Heights and build a home near Tonya's sister.

What stunned them, though, was what they didn't find in one of Ohio's fastest-growing suburbs.

"I went to the parks and the recreation center, and there were no blacks" working there, Ron Smith said. "I went to City Hall, and I didn't see any blacks. And there were no blacks in the police and fire departments. "

Although 9 percent of the city's 17,006 residents were black, the city government had only one black employee in 2001, a part-time worker.

With "more blacks coming to Twinsburg, we should represent a portion of Twinsburg city government," said Smith, an autoworker.

The Smiths are among a growing number of black middle-class families who have flocked to Twinsburg for affordable housing, good schools, its diverse population and safe neighborhoods.

The trend has transformed a quiet enclave known for its Twins Days Festival into a sought-after destination for families from Cleveland and Cuyahoga County's inner-ring suburbs, as well as people transferred into the Cleveland area.

Other suburbs, such as Euclid and Maple Heights, have seen similar growth in their black populations, but Twinsburg's changes are unusual: The black families coming here, on average, earn more money than the white residents.

And, some of the new black residents say they feel uncomfortable with how they are perceived in a town buffeted by rapid racial change.

"We're not interested in trying to tear down the walls of City Hall," said one black man, who, like several black residents, asked to remain unidentified because he fears being targeted.

"People should be able to live in peace. And the way I can live in peace is if I feel like the community is governed by all people."

Between 1990 and 2000, Twinsburg's black population more than tripled, from 434 to 1,552, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The Asian population surged as well - from 24 residents in 1990 to 502 in 2000 - while Hispanics rose from 49 to 176.

The new black families have brought substantial incomes. The median household income for black residents in 2000 was $70,278, almost $10,000 higher than the median income for all households in Twinsburg, the census shows. The median housing value for blacks was $186,300, compared with $167,600 for whites.

The schools' student body reflects the same trend. Black students increased from 19 percent of the district's enrollment in 1990 to 22 percent last year. Economically, the district is a diverse mix of middle-class families and some middle-class and lower-income students from Twinsburg Township, where slightly more than half of the 2,153 residents are black.

But hiring of minorities in City Hall, safety forces and schools has not kept pace with the city's diversity.

The Twinsburg police and fire departments have no black employees. Until recently, the city employed only two black people, both part time, and two black seasonal employees.

Of the 80 full-time city employees, the police department has one Asian officer, and the city's fitness center has one American Indian and one Asian employee.

Second-term Mayor Katherine Procop has filled three vacancies on her eight-member cabinet, but none of the administrators is a minority.

In a recent interview, Procop said it did not occur to her to hire minorities. "I don't want to remove anyone in those positions," Procop said of the three new cabinet members. She said she hoped she would be able to hire a minority cabinet member "at some point."

Procop pointed to the hiring of a black man in the Service Department in March, a move that came after a group of black residents met with her about the lack of black city employees. Since then, the city has hired another black man and a Hispanic man.

Anthony Turner, who moved to Twinsburg in 1997, met Procop as she campaigned for re-election last fall. He told her of his concerns about the lack of blacks in the safety forces, and Procop set up a meeting with Turner in January.

At their meeting, Turner, Smith and Robert Miller, a Cleveland police lieutenant, asked the mayor to add three part-time police officers to attract black patrolmen from other police departments. City Council agreed, but the positions are not yet filled.

"The issue in Twinsburg is one that the mayor can control," said Miller, who moved to Twinsburg four years ago. "I laid it directly in her lap that she is responsible, not the police chief.

"How can you have 13 percent minorities and not have one African-American appointed to your cabinet? The mayor can change this cabinet. I do applaud her for doing something, but she's got a long way to go. Something we said in that room stuck with her."

Procop said she is committed to minority hiring. "We have a diverse community here in Twinsburg, and everybody needs to be represented. That's why we've made a concerted effort at job fairs to recruit minorities."

Other suburbs have similar concerns. In Euclid, black residents make up 30 percent of the population, according to Mayor Bill Cervenik, who promised during his fall election campaign to make the city's payroll match the population.

Cervenik's finance director is black, and the city recently hired a black man in the recreation department. The mayor was not sure how many minorities work for the city. A tight budget and the need to eliminate 20 positions makes it difficult to hire more, he said.

In Twinsburg, city government is not the only concern. Some families also complain that black teachers make up only 4.7 percent of the school district's 233 teachers. The district has one black principal and a black assistant principal. The percentage of black teachers is about the same as Beachwood's and higher than Solon's and Orange's, all nearby school districts.

But while black children make up 22 percent of Twinsburg's school enrollment, they are disciplined far more frequently than their white counterparts. Some parents say school officials do not know how to handle the increasing black student population.

This school year, 66 percent of the 115 suspensions at R.B. Chamberlin Middle School have gone to black students, while 32 percent went to white students.

At Twinsburg High School, 46 percent of the total suspensions this year are for black students and 51 percent white. The high school student body is 24 percent black.

School Superintendent James Jones said the suspension rate is higher for black students because a "higher proportion of them come from split families and poor households," referring to single-parent families.

The suspension numbers are higher at the middle school than the high school because the administration is catching kids with behavior problems at an earlier phase, Jones said.

Wornie L. Reed, professor of sociology and urban studies at Cleveland State University, said that when black children have no black role models at school, they feel inferior.

"Students are not better off if they don't have any black teachers or see anyone like themselves," Reed said.

Some black Twinsburg residents say they feel unwelcome even in their neighborhoods, in stores and at the city recreation center.

Alan Mitchell, whose family moved to Twinsburg in 1995 from Syracuse, N.Y., said he senses that the rec center staff is uneasy when he's there.

"They seem to keep an eye on minorities," said Mitchell, who in March met on his own with Procop to talk about hiring black people. "It's just a general fear that you see and feel in the workers. The reason I think it exists is a lack of knowledge when it comes to diversity."

Lisa Thompson, general manager of the Twinsburg Fitness Center, said the staff does not monitor black children specifically but watches anyone who behaves suspiciously, such as loitering outside the doorway.

Some black residents have formed groups to address the lack of black city workers, the number of black teachers and the discipline of black students. But those efforts have been fragmented, residents say.

Mary Cooper and her husband, Marvin, moved to Twinsburg five years ago from Cleveland. They tried to pull together a group of parents last fall to address the discipline of black students and to ask the district to offer prevention programs, anger management, counseling and peer mediation.

Attendance at the meetings has dwindled from 50 to a handful. Some people lost interest, and others feared retaliation against their children, Mary Cooper said.

"For five years, we sat up here crying and keeping it to ourselves," she said. "Somebody has to step up and say something."

Miller is trying to start a chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Twinsburg. The SCLC is the civil rights organization founded in 1957, in part by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Reed, the CSU professor, said racial progress cannot be made until black people have full participation in Twinsburg's city government and schools. "How can black people see themselves moving ahead and have full participation as citizens if there is no one like them making major decisions?"

Thomas Gaumer, editor of computer-assisted reporting, contributed to this story.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

amcclellan@plaind.com, 330-908-2993

2004 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission