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New year, new board members, president, VP for Akron Public Schools

Board member Diana Autry, right, being sworn in as president by chief financial officer and treasurer Stephen Thompson, left, during an Akron Board of Education meeting on Jan. 8, 2024.
Akron Public Schools
Board member Diana Autry, right, being sworn in as president by chief financial officer and treasurer Stephen Thompson, left, during an Akron Board of Education meeting on Jan. 8, 2024.

The Akron Board of Education voted during its Jan. 8 meeting to appoint new leadership in a meeting where important decisions about the future of the district loomed large.

The board voted five to two to appoint Diana Autry, its previous vice president, as president and board member Carla Jackson as vice president.

Autry works at Akron Children’s Hospital as a nurse and had two children attend Akron schools. She’s served on the board since 2019. In remarks during the meeting after being appointed, she said she's ready to meet the challenges of the moment.

"Some of which are the redistricting, academic achievement, discipline, levy, relationships, social, emotional and mental health (of) adults and students," she said. "And speaking of health. I'm going to briefly put on my nurse hat to say COVID and its effects are still here. Not only the physical illness, but the effects that manifest in behaviors such as fear, anger, anxiety, not even having the opportunity to mourn before the next tragedy hits."

Jackson has been a member of the board since 2021 and is a graduate of Garfield High School. According to her biography on the district's website, she is principal at Emmanual Christian Academy in Akron, a private non-denominational Christian school. She was criticized last year for religious posts she shared on Facebook that some criticized as anti-gay and anti-transgender, including one video in which a person said they were "transformed" from being transgender after a vision from God the Akron Beacon Journal reported. At the time she said she was "learning" about the differences between gender and sexuality, and emphasized she is “not a bigot,” and supports all students and children.

Jackson was also the lone dissenting vote against two policies approved by the board in 2022 that allow students and staff to use their chosen names and pronouns.

Jan. 8 was also the first regular board meeting for new board members Barbara Sykes, who formerly represented Akron in the Ohio House and as a City Council member, and Summer Hall, who works for the city of Akron as a community outreach coordinator. Sykes said the board needs to work on communicating better with the community, and send more items through "committee meetings" - where matters are discussed but not voted on - to allow people more time to digest actions.

"The community don't exactly know what we're doing and why we're doing it, and the transparency is not there," she said, adding that trust will be key as the district closes some buildings and seeks a new levy.

There are now five women on the board and two men. Both the vice president and president are Black women. Jackson said the district will continue its focus on "equity."

"I know that word makes some people feel uncomfortable, but I'm here to tell you there's no growth in the comfort zone," she said. "We can't be comfortable with only a few of our schools flourishing while others are not, because we are only as strong as our weakest link. I know there is a concern that equity work is about catering to brown and black kids, but it's not always about race. But a lot of times it is. And that's okay. Akron Public Schools is over 50% brown and black kids, and that's okay too, because we are the public."

Later in the meeting, Akron Superintendent C. Michael Robinson and Chief Financial Officer Stephen Thompson provided updates on several matter, including the district's finances. Thompson and Robinson have previously said the district will need to make roughly $15 million in cuts this year and next in order to keep it out of the red for the next several years, giving the district what the hope will be enough time to get voter support for a levy.

Thompson reiterated that the district will need to be "right-sized," and said "reductions in force" will likely be needed. Robinson has previously struck a more hopeful tone in an interview with Ideastream Public Media, saying he believed the district could make cuts through attrition, or not filling positions of those who leave the district.

Robinson said restructuring the district will mean some new programs and positions and removing some old ones. He and Thompson both said it will be challenging to find a balance to achieve the cost savings the district wants, while investing in new programs like all-day kindergarten, for example, or expanding the district's communications office, as called out in a recent "Blueprint for Success" shared by the district.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.