Fight to Save the Schools

Eileen M. Donnelly, Bratenahl School Advocate and Community Leader

The third meeting of the Bratenahl Resident Action Committee, commonly referred to as “BRAC,” was held at John and Mary Anne Ertle's home on December 12, 1968.  A grass-roots movement of concerned Bratenahl residents, BRAC’s initial meetings, was described at the time as “brainstorming sessions” to “find a solution to the school problem.”

The “school problem” was a decision by the State Board of Education on June 10, 1968, that the Bratenahl School District merge with the Cleveland School District by no later than July 1, 1970.  State law required that all “elementary school districts,” that is, districts with schools that taught children only through the eighth grade, merge with a neighboring school district on or before July 1, 1968, unless granted an exemption from the State Board of Education.  The Bratenahl School had only eight grades.  The village could not build a high school because state law required a minimum enrollment of 240 students.  The total enrollment at the Bratenahl School rarely exceeded 160 students.  Although Bratenahl school officials tried to persuade the State Board to exempt the Bratenahl school system from the mandatory merger requirement, it only obtained a two-year extension of the merger deadline.

The initial meetings of BRAC were purely informational so that residents could learn the facts about the State Board’s order and explore possible alternatives to the merger.  The third BRAC meeting was to be an organizational meeting, including the election of officers.  But Bratenahl resident Eileen Donnelly came to the meeting with startling news.

Eileen Donnelly was one of the organizers of BRAC.  She was also an attorney.  Her legal research revealed that state law had recently changed in two significant ways, both beneficial to the future of the Bratenahl school system.  First, in December 1967, the Ohio General Assembly eliminated the requirement that new high schools obtain a charter from the Ohio Department of Education.  Under the new law, Ohio chartered new school districts, not new high schools within a chartered school district.  This meant that if Bratenahl wanted to build a high school, it did not need state approval, only community support.

Donnelly’s second revelation was even more significant.  In July 1968, she discovered that two weeks after Bratenahl’s final hearing in Columbus, the State School Board implemented new educational standards.  High schools no longer had to have a minimum enrollment of 240 students. Instead, the new standards required a public high school, organized after July 1, 1968, to offer a minimum of 55 units of credit in separately organized classes, including 30 credit units in subject areas specified in the state standards.  If Bratenahl could develop a high school curriculum program that met these new academic standards, Bratenahl could operate a high school with a small student body.  Bratenahl would no longer be just an “elementary school system” and, maybe, could get out from under the state law requirement that the Bratenahl School merge with the Cleveland School District.

The Ohio Board of Education had not informed the Bratenahl School Board of either state law changes.  It took Eileen Donnelly to discover the changes and understand their significance.

Who was Eileen Donnelly?

Eileen Marie Byrne Donnelly was born on June 8, 1925, to Peter and Daisy Byrne.  She earned a Master of Arts degree from Western Reserve University and, initially, had a theater career.  As reported in The Plain Dealer in 1955, Eileen’s “background embraces roles in New York shows, New England stock, Popeloff Ballet Company, and Cain Park.” She also co-managed her father’s business, the Peter J. Byrne Roofing Company.

At the same time, Eileen earned a law degree from Cleveland Marshall Law School. She was one of only two women to pass the Ohio bar examination in March 1955.  After marrying a fellow Cleveland Marshall Law graduate, John V. Donnelly, in 1958, Eileen served as assistant Ohio attorney general from 1959 to 1963.  After that, she was a partner in the Cleveland law firm of Canning, Cody, Donnelly, Herzog, and McNamara.  Her husband was also a partner in the firm.  Eileen was admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court in 1969, was a member of the National Association of Women Lawyers, the Cleveland and Ohio State bar associations, and vice dean of the Cleveland Chapter of Kappa Beta Phi, a legal sorority.

Eileen and John Donnelly purchased the property located at 10494 Lake Shore Boulevard in 1966, where they raised their three children.  After announcing her legal research results at the December BRAC meeting, Eileen became the first President of the organization. She played an instrumental role in convincing the Bratenahl School Board to build a new high school in the village.  At the same time, she served as President of the Bratenahl PTA and as a leader of the local chapter of the girl scouts.

In February 1970, she joined a contingent of Bratenahl officials and residents who traveled to Columbus to persuade the State Board of Education to extend the July 1, 1970 school merger deadline to enable Bratenahl to implement a new high school program.  When the State Board rejected the proposal without a hearing, Eileen personally drove to Columbus on February 20, 1970, to file Bratenahl’s appeal of the State Board’s decision.  Eileen was always an advocate for her community. On March 9, 1970, petitioned the Bratenahl School Board to use a classroom for Girl Scout meetings.  Two weeks later, on March 22, 1970, Eileen Donnelly died in her home after a sudden illness.  She was only 43 years old.
Mirroring the sentiments of the entire Bratenahl Community, the PTA eulogized Eileen Donnelly in a mailing:

“She made a great contribution to the PTA, but her greatest contribution was to Bratenahl.  For in its greatest moments, Eileen Donnelly alone gave Bratenahl hope. . . . During the two years of convincing the people that the Bratenahl High School was a sound idea, Eileen never never gave up or became discouraged.  She put her heart and soul into her convictions and worked night and day toward this goal.  She had to nudge a few ‘influential’ people during this period, but she never made an enemy.  They begrudgingly admired her determination and with her Irish wit and twinkling Irish eyes, she charmed them all.”