Will Akron schools facilities plan exclude the Kenmore neighborhood?
Should Akron Public Schools build a new school in the Kenmore neighborhood? How many schools should be closed or relocated amid declining enrollment? And how much debt, if any, should be taken on to fund new facilities?
These are all questions being considered by the Akron Board of Education and the administration of the school district as it considers a new facilities plan.
The district is experiencing declining enrollment at most of its schools, chief operating officer Stephen Thompson said during a Board of Education meeting Monday night. There are about 4,100 empty seats at the elementary school level alone, he said.
“That puts us at about 12 elementary schools that, in theory, you could close,” he said.
The district has renovated or built a significant number of buildings over the last two decades. Still, a small number of schools, less than a dozen, are increasingly expensive to maintain because they are old. They will likely be replaced or closed.
With current spending patterns, Thompson said, the district will be at a deficit by the 2027 fiscal year.
The board was presented with four different options Monday night. Some things remain the same across each plan, such as closing Firestone Park Elementary School and the Ott Building, as well as relocating Pfeiffer Elementary School and the Miller South Visual and Performing Arts School. The plans also include building a new North High School and a new athletics complex, in partnership with the city of Akron.
Two of the options would include no school buildings in Akron’s Kenmore neighborhood. Several board members, including N.J. Akbar, a former board president, said any plans excluding Kenmore would be non-starters. Akron has closed a number of school buildings in that neighborhood over the years, including Kenmore High School, Akbar said.
“I think we have to recognize that there's been a disinvestment in one of our communities, which is Kenmore, and to not further, you know, exacerbate the harms that we've done historically to that community,” he said.
Community members have also begun to express concerns about excluding Kenmore. Tina Boyes, a Kenmore resident and APS parent who is running for an Akron City Council seat, reminded the board that in 2003, the neighborhood had eight schools, and had voted for a levy with the promise of a new Kenmore high school and a new elementary school. Now the neighborhood has four public schools, one of them being Pfeiffer Elementary which will be closed and relocated out of the neighborhood.
“Students began leaving APS (Akron Public Schools) and Kenmore en-masse,” she explained, noting their families flocked to suburban schools.
She said the two plans that include building a new Kenmore school could serve to revitalize the neighborhood and bring families back.
Still, she said, the district will need to rebuild trust in the neighborhood after “promises made, promises broken.” That could also make it challenging for the district to get the neighborhood's support for future levies.
Most of the plans have a hefty price tag, with two requiring the public to approve a new bond issue. According to meeting materials, the district is also considering a 7.9-mill operating levy in the near future.
Additional details from each plan are below. The district could combine parts from each plan when it comes time for the board to approve the facilities plan, likely by the end of the month. Officials said a new North school campus – one of the constants in the plans – is needed to help the district deal with overcrowding in that cluster of schools, due to an influx of refugees on that side of the city in recent years.
Options 1 and 1B
The first two options call for construction of a new Kenmore school, which would become home by August 2025 to grades six through eight of the National Inventors Hall of Fame STEM Middle School and the Performing Arts Program, as well as Pfeiffer Elementary School.
They also include building a new North High School, while rearranging a portion of the district’s “north cluster” schools to move students to different school clusters. All sixth-grade students in the district's "east cluster" schools would be moved to East Community Learning Center.
Both plans would open new preschool programs in some of the former elementary buildings, and construct a new athletic complex either on the former Kent Middle campus or the Kenmore campus, utilizing a “city/district collaboration” of funding.
“We have met unofficially, but we're still working to ensure that this collaboration is a possibility,” Thompson said.
Option 1, which would not require a new bond issue but would see the district take on $100 million in debt, targets 2027 for a new North High School for grades 9 through 12.
Option 1B, which relies on funding from a bond issue and foresees $35 million in debt, calls for a renovation of the existing building to create a North campus for grades six through 12.
Option 2 calls for a new grade six-through-12 North campus school, construction of a new athletic complex and repurposing former elementary schools into preschool sites.
It also calls for moving the Jennings Middle School into a former elementary school building, relocating grade four-through-eight Performing Arts School students to either Garfield or Buchtel high schools and moving all east cluster sixth-grade students to East Community Learning Center. It also would entail acquisition of the Morley Building from the city. It would then be renovated to house the National Inventors Hall of Fame STEM High School, whose lease is expiring at the University of Akron.
This option forecasts more savings from staffing reductions at closed buildings. Still the district would need $85 million in loans. It does not rely on a bond issue and does not include a school in the Kenmore neighborhood.
Option 3 is considered the “budget” option by the district, and would rely on a bond issue being approved by voters by 2026.
It would involve building a new North school campus for grades six through 12, to be completed by August 2030 and funded by the bond issue. It also envisions construction of an athletic facility and increased space for preschools. Two community learning centers would house grades six through eight of the Performing Arts Program and the National Inventors Hall of Fame STEM Middle School. The building currently housing the middle school would then become the National Inventors Hall of Fame STEM Middle School.
The north cluster schools would be rearranged and all east cluster sixth grade students would be moved to East Community Learning Center.
The plan would call for transferring ownership of the old Kenmore High School to the city of Akron. The plan would cost the district about $15 million. There would be no new Kenmore neighborhood school building.