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Akron school board members worry about trust as district considers levy campaign

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

Several Akron Board of Education members believe community members are lacking trust in the district, and they worried about the impact that could have on the levy the district will put on the ballot in November.

The board hasn't yet set the rates for the levy. The recommendation from the administration in March was to seek a 1.3-mill bond issue to rebuild North High School and a new 7.6-mill levy to fund operations, but place them on the ballot as one issue

During the April 11 board of ed meeting, Board Vice Chair Carla Jackson said she's received a "great deal of questions" from community members, and understands there's a "great deal of mistrust" for the board and its decision-making capabilities.

"They don't believe that we're being clear and transparent with our numbers, and how are we in this place?" she said.

Some residents told her they don't believe the district has been wise with its budgeting, including significant raises given to teachers during the last round of negotiations, Jackson said. She said she's also hearing some are upset with the district after it turned down $156,000 state grant to pay for a private tutoring firm to provide after-school tutoring to students who are behind on reading, after opposition from the teacher's union.

"I'm trying to explain to them that it hurts our children, but it's almost like they think it's like a payback to teachers," Jackson said.

Board Member Summer Hall said she was hearing similar concerns from community members; another specific concern she said she'd heard around teacher salaries was that some people who work at the administrative office earned the same raises and benefits that teachers receive.

"I think the number was maybe over 40 teachers that work down there, if they're all getting overtime on top of a teacher salary when they get the increase, that's putting us way more in debt. So how do we fix that? You know, especially when I hear at schools that there's like 18 call offs in a day. It blows my mind, you know?" she said.

Pat Shipe, president of the Akron Education Association, responded that all staff at Akron schools received the same raises that the union negotiated for in its last contract, which amounted to 10.5% over three years. She said it's long been the case that the district grants other staff the same raises the union gets. The cost for the teacher raises over the three years was about $21 million, which Shipe said is a "small portion" of the district's overall budget. The total budget was about $420 million in the last fiscal year.

On the tutoring contract front, Shipe argued the tutoring provided by Varsity Tutors, the online tutoring firm the district would have had to contract with, would have been poor quality; pandemic-related school closures showed that online learning is not effective, she argued.

"Our own teachers, the teachers that are local, that understand those students and know their students, could have provided twice the amount of hours of one on one tutoring as varsity tutors could with the same amount of money," she said.

A lawsuit the union filed against the district is continuing in Summit County Common Pleas Court, with discovery set to start soon, Shipe said.

The district has not had an increase in operating funds approved by taxpayers since 2012, said Stephen Thompson, chief financial officer for Akron Public Schools. Because of state law, even as people's property taxes increase with reassessments, the amount of money the district receives is still locked in at that 2012 rate, he explained.

That means the district's funding has not kept up with the cost of inflation, Board Member Rene Molenaur said.

"The price of gas, has gone up, the price of buses has gone up. And, you know, the 12 years it's been since the last levy and the amount of money that we have that we are receiving is the same amount of money as 12 years ago," Molenaur said

Board Chair Diana Autry was a skeptical voter herself in the past and said the onus is on the board and district to educate voters on the need for the increase in taxes.

"I think one of the important pieces that we need to educate the community on is how public schools are actually funded," she said. "I mean, that needs to be clear, because I was that person before I got on the board who didn't understand, 'Well, I'm not going to vote for it because I don't think we're going to get what we deserve.'"

The district is trying to analyze deeply where it can make cuts, Superintendent Michael Robinson said, to create a balanced budget and "right-size" the district after years of enrollment declines. The district has previously said it will need to make at least $15 million in cuts this year; Robinson more than that will likely be needed over the next few years, although that does mean they could be rolled out over that time.

"I don't want to decimate an entire system in one year," Robinson said.

However, that doesn't mean the district won't be "strategically" investing in some new positions, including in the area of communications, which he said the district has historically not invested in, to its own detriment, he said.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.