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Akron parents anxious about fate of arts, STEM schools amid major facilities reckoning

 Akron Public Schools headquarters in Downtown Akron.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
Akron Public Schools headquarters in Downtown Akron.

The Akron Board of Education is facing tough decisions and tough questions as it considers the future of some school facilities in the district.

Parents, teachers and other stakeholders packed the Board’s meeting Monday night, anxious to learn more about the fate of two schools in particular: the Miller South School for the Visual Performing Arts and the National Inventors Hall of Fame STEM Middle School.

Currently the school district is wrestling with multiple facilities-related challenges. Miller South is far beyond its useful life and needs a new home, officials have said, while the National Inventors Hall of Fame STEM High School’s lease is running out this year. The district’s “northern cluster” buildings are overcrowded with an influx of refugee families in Akron’s north side. Meanwhile, the rest of the district is experiencing low enrollment due to the declining population of Akron overall, with elementary schools especially being underpopulated. That means the district is considering closing and consolidating some elementary schools to save money.

Finally, the district is facing an uncertain financial future, and time is of the essence, with its American Rescue Plan Act money running out and needing to be spent by mid-2024. Stephen Thompson, Akron Schools Chief Operating Officer, also said he’s struggling to hold off on up to $15 million in repairs to buildings like Miller South, which desperately need fixes to important systems things like heating and cooling.

This will probably be perhaps one of the most important decisions the school board has made in quite some time in Akron Public Schools,” Thompson said.

In moving Miller South to a new building, the district last week had considered axing the program’s fourth and fifth grade component, and just moving its sixth through eighth grades to a building with a smaller footprint to save money, which drew many parents to the meeting.

Carly Whetsel, Miller South’s PTA President, said removing those first two grades would be “robbing those students of the self-confidence” and growth they currently get at Miller South.

“Since its inception, the school has allowed older students to mentor the younger kids a chance to remain young at heart while setting an example blends the older and younger grades, allowing them to benefit from each other,” Whetsel said.

Plus, the district is also considering moving the STEM High School to the STEM Middle School’s site, which had parents like Melissa Wheeler concerned about the fate of STEM Middle School

“It needs to stay in downtown,” she said. “The ability to go on walking field trips and be very involved with the community partners, it's part of what makes STEM (Middle School) what it is.”

Board President Derrick Hall tried to reassure meeting attendees that the board has not made any decisions yet, and is combing through multiple difficult options with no clear win-win solution in sight. He and several other board members did reiterate their preference for keeping Miller South’s fourth-through-eighth grade model, however.

And Thompson presented several new models of facilities plans Monday night that would do just that. One solution is to move both the STEM Middle School and Miller South to a new building in Akron’s Kenmore neighborhood that’s purposefully built to have space for both labs and performing arts.

“If you build that building the right way… that becomes a building with programming and facilities that attracts kids not just from Akron but also becomes a building that exerts an even stronger pull on kids outside the district,” Hall said.

But that building could cost roughly $68 million or more.

Meanwhile, all of the plans do suggest building a new North High School campus – which could include grades six through eight at its most expensive option (to be funded by a $100 million-dollar bond issue that would need voter approval). And they do suggest building a new $15-million athletic complex for Garfield Community Learning Center, which does not have one currently. Several board members, including Bruce Alexander and N.J. Akbar, suggested the district table that part of the proposal to save money for the school building proposals, and instead seek other creative financing options with community partners or the city.

Regardless of what the board decides, all of the facilities plans presented to the board so far have had the district at a significant deficit as of the 2027 fiscal year. Thompson said the board could consider getting voter approval of a permanent improvement levy – meant only to be spent on facilities - to help fund the facilities upgrades and keep the district financially solvent.

The board will meet again next week to consider its options, with a decision likely to come in the near future.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.