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Akron Public Schools' Transition Report finds issues of implicit bias, power struggles

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

Akron Public Schools released a new report this week that documents the district's transition to a new superintendent.

The report comes as tensions are high in the district. On Monday, the school board voted to cut 285 positions, including 52 teachers and are set to vote next week on a levy for the November ballot. The Akron Education Association, the union representing teachers in the district, contends the district and Superintendent Michael Robinson are union busting, which the district says has not been brought to their attention.

Robinson was hired in the summer of 2023 after former Superintendent Christine Fowler-Mack resigned mid contract. Her tenure was mired by a critical school board and a turbulent relationship with AEA.

Report author Stuart Berger, CEO of Burns/Van Fleet, a K-12 consulting firm, assessed the current landscape and recommended various areas of improvement for the district to consider. He spoke to 170 administrators, principals, teachers, union leaders, school board members and representatives of the community over five weeks in the fall of 2023.

Robinson was previously on Burns/Van Fleet's roster of education consultants, but he did not work on any projects and received no paychecks in his time there, Berger said, adding that although he sees Robinson as a "professional friend," he did not see the firm conducting the report as a conflict of interest.

Robinson has not fully reviewed the report and would not comment on its contents, Berger said.

Who's in charge?

One of the major issues in the district is that principals lack authority, Berger said.

"The principals I believe when I interviewed them - not all by any means but the vast majority and the vast majority of the central office - believed that an individual board member could give directive and that directive stuck," he explained.

A power vortex was created when Fowler-Mack left the district, Berger said.

"The district made it very difficult in my opinion to be a principal in this district," he said. "Way too much authority has been given away."

The school board and the teacher's union have siphoned power from school principals, Berger said.

"The district historically, and this is also very common in urban districts, has negotiated away a tremendous amount of the principal's prerogatives," he said, "and I do not blame the unions."

His recommendations include "insisting that principals are the instructional leaders in the buildings," "negotiate the return of the principal's authority" and "clarify the role of individual board members and their authority."

Poor expectations

Berger also found that low expectations for students are causing low performance.

"Really really one of the greatest concerns, I think it's not just true of APS, it's true of all urban - I won't say all - most urban school district, the expectations are just not what they need to be," he said.

Some of this is caused by implicit bias in teaching staff, Berger said. He recommends the district increase professional development around implicit bias and vigorously recruit a diverse teaching force.

Themes for improvement

Other recommendations detailed in the report include fast tracking the hiring of student teachers, transporting middle school students on public buses, providing more equitable athletics and extracurriculars, expanding the district's after school program and starting a nonprofit solely for the school district.

"APS is at a crossroads - will it continue to be a viable, diverse school system or evolve into a traditional urban district overwhelmed by students who face extreme obstacles including poverty, language barriers or serious learning challenges?"
Stuart Berger, CEO-Burns/Van Fleet

Currently, the Akron Community Foundation fundraises for the district, Berger said. It's unusual for a district of this size not to have its own nonprofit.

"I'm not at all indicating that the Akron Community Foundation is not doing a good job, because they clearly are," he said. "It might produce a little more money."

Berger also recommended ways for the district to cut costs, including hiring an in house lawyer. The district currently has an outside law firm on retainer, which Berger contended cost the district far too much money last year.

"The district spent $1 million," he said, "but in fairness, it was negotiating a severance package."

The district also has to negotiate with seven unions, Berger added.

Berger also suggested reducing the district's dependence on retired principals, who work as substitute principals and recruiters in the district, costing the district up to $350 per day.

An excellent job

Although there's lot of room for improvement, Berger also highlighted areas the district is excelling in.

"As you can imagine, a performance audit is going to be far more dwelling on the areas that need to be improved than there is on what's going right," he said, "and there's lots in this district, especially for an urban district, that's going right."

He praised the district for its impressive college and career program, community partnerships and curriculum. The district's development and approval of a long term operational plan for school closures, renovations and construction is also a strength, he wrote. He also noted the district's awareness of declining enrollment and competition with charter and private schools is positive. He suggested ways for the district to better compete with these other educational options, like expanding the lauded Akron After School program to all students in the district.

"APS is at a crossroads - will it continue to be a viable, diverse school system or evolve into a traditional urban district overwhelmed by students who face extreme obstacles including poverty, language barriers or serious learning challenges?," Berger wrote. "The consultants believe the infrastructure, talent and community support exist to assure its viability."

Overall, the report paints a picture of an urban school district doing its best in a tumultuous time with a need for massive improvement.

"If the subset is urban school districts just on a curve, this is better than most, better than most," Berger said." Is it doing what it should be doing for kids? No. Absolutely not."

Abigail Bottar covers Akron, Canton, Kent and the surrounding areas for Ideastream Public Media.