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Akron teachers union, district face off over private tutoring company

 Akron Public Schools headquarters in Downtown Akron.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
Akron Public Schools headquarters in Downtown Akron. A contentious late-January meeting of the Akron Board of Education brought out union supporters who questioned the district's decision to hire a private company to provide tutoring to students after-school.

A crowd of teachers and union supporters filled Monday's Akron Public Schools Board of Education meeting, calling on the district to rethink its decision to hire a private tutoring company to provide reading tutoring to students.

After lengthy discussion, the board decided to hold another meeting next week to make a final decision on moving forward with using an online tutoring company, Varsity Tutors LLC, meant to provide after-school tutoring on reading to students. The tutoring would be paid for by a $156,000 grant from the Ohio Department of Education, and the district says it will lose out on the grant opportunity if a decision is not made by Feb. 1.

The Akron Education Association, the union representing Akron’s teachers, has blasted the district for trying to outsource teacher jobs to a private company. It filed an injunction in Summit County Common Pleas Court Monday to block the contract. The union alleges the board illegally entered into the contact with Varsity Tutors after a closed-door executive session on Jan. 8.

Supporters of the union argued the district’s plan would involve using unqualified tutors and would funnel jobs that should go to local educators.

Lorene Wise, president of the Ohio Association of Public School Employees Local 689, which represents employees like teacher aides and bus drivers at the district, said unions from across the state support the Akron Education Association’s stance, including teachers’ unions in Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati and Toledo.

If you so readily outsource the jobs of our educators, I ask you who is next?” she said. “What other employee will you deem unnecessary?”

Paul Palomba, president of the Canton Professional Educators' Association, Canton's teachers union, said Akron did not do its due diligence when reviewing the tutoring contract with Varsity Tutors.

“Many politicians in Columbus have made it their work to attempt to drain more and more public dollars away from our districts, and funnel those resources to private companies and schools,” he said. “That is why we've all been shocked that this board would collaborate with the state to further drain Akron's resources out of the district by outsourcing Akron's qualified educator jobs to unqualified and subcontracted people who have thousands of complaints logged against them.”

The Ohio Department of Education on its website says Varsity Tutors is one of 11 companies that were evaluated and found to provide “high-quality,” evidence-based tutoring.

Akron Public Schools Superintendent Michael Robinson said that the tutoring company is willing to give first priority for the tutoring jobs – which would be online and after-school – to union teachers and tutors. He noted that the district already has 70 tutoring vacancies, although he also said those tutors are typically working during the school day, so teachers could not take those positions on. In a letter to the union last week, he also fired back at Pat Shipe, president of the Akron Education Association, for “unsupported allegations” about the district’s conduct.

“Your statement about AEA members’ jobs being threatened and ‘disturbing assaults’ on the CBA and working conditions are inflammatory words that are inaccurate,” Robinson said.

44.6% of Akron’s third-grade students tested “proficient” in the reading portion of the state’s English language arts test on the last state report card; state leaders in the last budget added a requirement for any third-graders failing that test to be provided “intensive intervention” until they can read at grade level.

Cynthia Blake, the grandmother of an Akron Public Schools student, said during public comment that it was a “power play” by the union to oppose the hiring of the tutors for children struggling to read.

“They would be great help for my granddaughter who is struggling and needs the help who, my daughter has an outside tutor and is picking up extra shifts at her job to pay for the tutoring, so she (her granddaughter) is not a burden, or left behind,” she said.

Pastor Gregory Harrison also spoke out about the enmity between the district and the union, noting his godson was shot and killed by a 15-year-old Akron boy who, he said, was failed by the system and himself didn't know how to read.

When students can't read, we give them no chance,” he said, asking the two sides to put differences aside and figure out a path forward.

The Board of Education did hold a vote on rescinding the contract offered to Varsity Tutors, but the vote was not successful, 5 to 2. Board President Diana Autry said the board will meet again next week to determine the best course of action.

"We'll give the superintendent a time to further come to some type of common ground on this issue, that we can report back on and get these answers (to) questions... that were brought forth to us this evening."

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.