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Akron school board approves cutting 285 positions despite protest from teachers

Roughly 100 teachers, students and others turned out to a rally outside Akron Public Schools' main administrative offices. May 20, 2024, to protest proposed cuts of teacher jobs.
Conor Morris
Ideastream Public Media
Roughly 100 teachers, students and others turned out to a rally outside Akron Public Schools' main administrative offices, May 20, 2024, to protest cuts of teacher jobs that were approved later that evening.

Despite teachers protesting outside Akron Public Schools’ headquarters earlier in the day, the Akron Board of Education signed off Monday night on a budget reduction plan that will mean 285 positions will be cut, and 52 teachers will lose their jobs.

District officials said the cuts are needed to help the district face a looming budget deficit and to “right-size” the school district after years of enrollment declines.

Leaders with the Akron Education Association, which represents teachers and other staff at Akron Public Schools, during the protest alleged the district and Superintendent Michael Robinson are engaged in "union busting" tactics. AEA President Pat Shipe alleged Robinson has moved to discipline teachers critical of the administration, while being critical himself of the union's contract and arguing it's the source of the district's problems.

"We have a good idea of how labor unions are treated in Louisiana," Shipe said, referring to Robinson's former school district. "But we are in Akron, Ohio. We're in northeastern Ohio. We have a rich history of labor in this town. Labor that built the city. Labor that moved the city forward. Labor that continues to play a vital role in our community, labor, and a community that supports all of you: parents, families, students, your neighbors, corporate partners, politicians, and even many of the superintendents own staff, support you."

Spokesperson Mark Williamson said the allegation of union-busting is news to him.

"This allegation has not been brought to the district's attention," Williamson said. "That would be the appropriate way to address such concerns. Therefore, we will not respond to assertions based on speculation."

Janell Brown, second vice president (elementary) with the Akron Education Association, alleged the superintendent compared the union to "the devil" in remarks to a local church over the weekend.

"We are told that the superintendent recently stated, 'This is my house. I want the union people out of my house,'" Brown said.

Robinson spoke to the Second Baptist Church in Akron on Sunday, the day before the meeting. (Robinson takes the pulpit around 28 minutes into the video.) He spoke at length about the district's financial health and the plan for cuts, but he did not directly reference the union. He described the cuts as tough, but necessary. At one point, however, he did refer to the Monday meeting and said "you're going to hear the ugly all tomorrow, because that's what the devil does, the devil is coming to seek who he can devour and destroy, but I am telling you that we're going to walk out of 10 North Main on tomorrow night as victors."

After the meeting Monday, Robinson denied that the passage was referring to the union and said that generally speaking, he was talking about challenges facing the district as a whole.

Chase Belmont, a student at North High School, urged the district not to cut the position of so many "beloved" teachers. He noted a teacher he considers a role model will be cut.

"During my two years as his student, his encouragement has motivated me to take school more seriously and has offered unwavering support, has supported us as students," he said. "We deserve a thorough explanation before losing these invaluable role models."

While about 120 of the 285 positions cut will be removed via attrition — through retirements or removing vacant positions — roughly 160 employees will lose their jobs, according to a presentation from the school district's administration given Monday; the total number has decreased since numbers announced last week, due to staff members voluntarily announcing their retirement.

About 200 vacant and filled positions, represented by the Akron Education Association, will be eliminated. The total staff size of teachers and administrators will be cut by about 7.5% cut each. That amounts to eight administrators of 211 total being laid off, versus 52 teachers being laid off out of 2,621 total. About 75 substitute tutors hired during the pandemic, positions which were funded by federal pandemic relief, will also be laid off.

The district has said it will also need increased funding to keep operations in the black in the future; it's not seen a new levy approved to fund operations since 2012. The board will vote next week on the exact details of a levy to put on the ballot this November.

There are many financial pressures at the district, Chief Financial Officer Stephen Thompson said. He said the cost of "everything" has increased in recent years, while the district has approved significant raises for teachers and other employees. While the district has received increased funding from the state, the district is also continuing to lose enrollment. School districts in Ohio receive money from the state on a per-student basis, so, further enrollment declines will continue to hurt the district's bottom line.

He said the district also significantly expanded staffing since the pandemic using pandemic relief funds, hiring about 427 employees. Finally, the district also recently discovered it had $6 million in payments coming due on its downtown headquarters, which was purchased prior to the pandemic, by the past administration.

Board Member Renee Molenaur questioned why the district is cutting $24 million, instead of $15 million as previously discussed; Thompson responded that, in addition to the pressures noted above, another reason is the district is also increasing staffing on several fronts, and so additional cuts are needed to balance that out over the long run.

There was confusion during the meeting about which teachers will be laid off. Robinson explained that before he came to the school district, roughly 58 teachers - six who have since resigned - were employed out of the central administrative office; while they were classified as teachers, they mostly performed administrative work. Those central-office employees will be brought back into teaching positions, but that will lead to layoffs for 52 less-senior teachers who are currently in the classroom. That's because of state law and the teachers' contract, which means more-senior employees will be prioritized.

"Yeah, the teachers that we love and we built bonds with and connect with are the teachers that you’re going to release," Robinson explained. "But I don’t have any other choice, I have to make these cuts. I can’t keep those teachers and and release those who have more seniority- we have negotiated agreements and contracts that we have to follow."

Robinson said teachers who have been laid off will have an opportunity to re-apply if new positions open up as others retire, or if more students begin to come back to the district and new positions are needed.

Updated: May 20, 2024 at 10:07 PM EDT
This story has been updated following the board of education vote to approve cuts to teacher and other positions.
Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.