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Official says two new levies needed for cash-strapped Akron schools

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

Akron Public Schools could put two school levies on the ballot as soon as spring 2024, officials said during a Board of Education meeting Monday night.

Stephen Thompson, chief operating officer, said the need for more tax money comes as the district looks at several large construction projects and a variety of other facilities updates and swaps.

Thompson has presented financial projections over the last few weeks suggesting that the district will be at a deficit by around 2027, regardless of how the district solves its facilities issues.

He said costs of construction are the highest they’ve ever been, and the district is seeing rises costs for employee salaries and healthcare.

Although no decisions have been made, the district will likely need to put two levies on the ballot starting in spring 2024, Thompson said. He suggested a 6.9-mill operating levy to be used for general purposes (which would bring in about $19.3 million a year), and a 1.75-mill permanent improvement levy (to bring in $3.5 million per year), likely to fund construction of a new North High School building.

“The notion that simply a levy, one levy, is enough to solve our financial problems is not accurate,” Thompson said, noting the district will also need to reduce its expenses.

The district is trying to solve multiple facilities-related challenges, which has created worries among some residents over the fate of buildings and programs.

Officials have said the Miller South Visual and Performing Arts School is far beyond its useful life and needs a new home, while the National Inventors Hall of Fame STEM High School’s lease is running out this year (although it could be extended into spring of 2024).

Meanwhile, the district’s “northern cluster” buildings are overcrowded with an influx of refugee families in Akron’s North Side and North High School is also old and deteriorated.

The rest of the district is experiencing low enrollment due to the declining population of Akron, with elementary schools especially being underpopulated. As a result, the district is considering closing and consolidating some elementary schools to save money.

Board President Derrick Hall said the district might have challenges getting a levy approved by voters unless they show they’re willing to invest in the community.

“I'm optimistic that we’ll pass the levies we need to pass if we start giving back to areas of the city that feel that we have taken from them for a long time,” Hall said. “I'm talking about the Kenmore community one. I'm talking about the Firestone Park community.”

In Kenmore, the district has closed school buildings over the last two decades, which advocates say has seriously hurt the community’s vitality. Meanwhile, the district built a new building at Garfield Community Learning Center in Firestone Park. That does not have an athletic facility, though, and the school board is considering building one.

Thompson presented several new mixes of facility options Monday night, which include a phased-in approach.

Among the options are:

  • Build a new school building in the Kenmore neighborhood to house Pfeiffer Elementary School students and Miller South students at a cost of about $60 million. It would include new performing arts facilities for the Miller South program.
  • Build a smaller school building in Kenmore for around $21 million, but move Miller South to a different building the district currently owns. The district would then construct a new auditorium at Miller South's new location at a cost of $6 million, along with $1.5 million in other retrofits.
  • Retrofit Leggett Community Learning Center at a cost of $2 million to be more suited to STEM (science, technology, math and engineering) education. The district will move the National Inventors Hall of Fame STEM Middle School to Leggett, while the STEM High School would move to the old Middle School site. Officials have said they want both schools to be close to Downtown Akron to better utilize partnerships with the University of Akron. Leggett is closer than many other schools.
  • In a second phase (potentially allowing more time for a levy to pass), build an $80-million dollar new North High School by August 2028.
  • Construct an athletic facility, estimated to cost $15 million, to be paid for with fundraising or partnerships with businesses, the city of Akron or other partners.

These plans, as with the others, involve closing a host of elementary school buildings which would provide savings of at least $2 million per year in reduced staffing and maintenance costs.
The board is set to meet and likely take a final vote on the facility plans during its April 10 meeting.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.