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Superintendent Works to Address Akron Schools' Current Needs and What Fall Might Bring

a photo of David James
Akron Public Schools Superintendent David James says now that districts know schools will remain closed for the rest of this school year, they can start preparing for fall.

Every student in Akron Public Schools has a Chromebook. And Superintendent David James says most of them have connected via remote learning, but fewer than half are actively doing school work. The district is trying to get students more involved, but it’s also facing a number of other challenges from the coronavirus pandemic.

James welcomed the decision this week from Governor Mike DeWine to keep schools closed for the remainder of the school year.   

DAVID JAMES: I think the governor understood that there would be a lot of hardships of trying to reopen school now, particularly when some districts the end of their school year is May 14. For us in Akron, our last day for students is June 4. So there will be a lot that we will have to do to get prepared to come back. So I think our resources are better spent trying to figure out what we're going to do come fall, if we're going to still have social distancing requirements in place. We have two sometimes three kids to a seat on a bus. When you think about the cafeteria during lunch, you know, where we have large numbers of students, students coming in and out, you know, from their homes to school, students maybe 28 to 30 in a classroom in some cases. You know, the sports teams, the band and the orchestra.  We have to figure all that out, you know, depending on the course that the virus takes. So I think it was a good idea to leave our school closure plan in place. And then we need to work together with other superintendents, our department of education, the governor's office to figure out a plan for how we're going to address the fall. And that's, that's gonna be a big heavy lift.

SARAH TAYLOR: How is that fall planning going? Has it begun and who's leading that effort for schools?

DAVID JAMES: As the governor has said, every school district is different. You have the bigger urbans which have their particular set of issues; you have some of the suburban schools, half of them look more like urban districts just because of their size; and then many rural districts in the rural districts, they have some issues with internet connectivity. You can provide a hotspot but there just aren't enough mobile towers to connect. So we're all thinking about it, whether it's going to be alternative schedule where maybe it's a Monday, Wednesday and a Tuesday Thursday for some kids. There are a lot of things that we have to consider. As we move forward with the planning, I think the governor acknowledges that districts need flexibility in how they approach the problem because we're all very different as individual districts.

SARAH TAYLOR: One of the things that's different about your district is your model as a college and career academies district. Can you utilize the college and career academies in this remote type of setting because so much of that it seems, relies on interaction with these community partners you've established?

DAVID JAMES: Exactly, I think that's gonna be an issue that we're gonna have to overcome. There are some things that we can do virtually but you know, some of that hands-on work requires close contact with people. And so those are some things that are, you know, folks in our college and career academies are actually looking at. There are some virtual solutions for some of that, but I'm not sure those virtual solutions are going to solve every instance in every problem even in our own classrooms where, you know, if you're in the automotive technology or the culinary area, a lot of times that requires some close contact in order to instruct students, you know, how to do certain technical tasks. And so those are some things that, you know, we are looking into right now.

SARAH TAYLOR: Do you think you’ll have to put the college and career academies model on hold for a bit?

DAVID JAMES: No, I don't think so. I think there's a lot that we can still do and still get accomplished. So those are going to be moving full steam ahead. But I'm sure we'll have to make some adjustments, but I do not believe that we will put that on hold.

SARAH TAYLOR: Financially speaking, it's expected that the state is going to reduce funding. As I understand it, 56% of your budget comes from the state. How are you beginning to think about what you're going to do there? And I know you had been thinking about a levy at the point when this all began.

DAVID JAMES: What we have to pay attention to, because we're always downwind of the issues in Columbus with the state. So we know the governor has informed his state agencies to start looking at how they can reduce expenditures. And I think eventually that will hit us. We don't know how. But there's also some CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act funding that should be hitting the state. We're waiting for guidelines from the U.S. Department of Education. And we'll have to see how that funding will play out. I'm actually just as worried about local funding because for many of the people who have temporarily lost their jobs, these might turn into permanent job losses, as some companies may not recover. What is that going to do to the local property tax, which is another basis of our financing. We just don't know. So we're monitoring that. And we'll see where that goes. As soon as we hear something from the state in terms of CARES Act money and what it can actually be used for or can support, our operations will probably have a better idea on what things we will have to do. We are very in tune with that, and our chief financial officer, Ryan Pendleton, has to create his five year forecast in May. So we’re looking at revenue streams and how they could potentially be impacted.

SARAH TAYLOR: What is the status of the levy discussion that was begun?

DAVID JAMES: That is still on the table being discussed by the board and by staff. And we don't have to make a decision, I think, probably June or July if something's going to be put on the ballot. So we're just having those conversations as well. There are two schools of thought: one is, you know, if the economy isn't recovered by then it may be a very difficult lift to put a levy on the ballot. And some say we should maybe just preempt that. Those are some discussions that are currently going on and it's really too early to say there's a final decision on that.

A Northeast Ohio native, Sarah Taylor graduated from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio where she worked at her first NPR station, WMUB. She began her professional career at WCKY-AM in Cincinnati and spent two decades in television news, the bulk of them at WKBN in Youngstown (as Sarah Eisler). For the past three years, Sarah has taught a variety of courses in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Kent State, where she is also pursuing a Master’s degree. Sarah and her husband Scott, have two children. They live in Tallmadge.