the Beacon Journal editorial board
While the original scope of the rebuilding plan formulated by the city of Akron and the Akron Public Schools covered all 58 buildings in the district, the size of the project was always dependent on enrollment. Almost from the beginning, the state’s financial commitment decreased based on projections of the student population. What was in 2003 a plan to serve some 30,000 students encountered trouble as early as 2004.
Updated projections indicated a decline that has continued ever since. The current five-year projection, which would mark the end of the project, finds a district with just 19,126 students.
The 2003 campaign to pass a city income tax increase to provide the local share (41 percent) of the rebuilding project did include references to “every school” and “every neighborhood.” Yet in language that echoes today as the final phase of the project looms, city and school district leaders in early 2005 talked about the need to close schools, to “right-size” the district and “make some very difficult decisions.”
This week, more than a decade later, city and school officials announced they would consider additional options for the final phase beyond the five recently presented by Superintendent David James, who would like to see a final plan by the end of this month. Enrollment remains the crucial factor. The state will not help to pay for more elementary or middle schools and, as of current projections, will make available $25 million toward the cost of one new high school, about half the money needed. Three high schools, Garfield, Kenmore and North, remain untouched.
Another persistent misconception is that the district has failed to make sufficient efforts to attract students back to its classrooms, especially from charter schools. The argument pushes aside the overall population loss in Akron, which has gone from 214,000 to about 197,000 during the life of the rebuilding project. Also, the argument ignores that the Akron schools perform as well or better than almost all charter schools in the district. The district has implemented popular options at its high schools to fight the drain from open enrollment to adjoining districts.
Further complicating the situation is that as enrollment declined, building costs increased, tightening the squeeze on available revenue. Ironically, a difficult bond market caused by the recession resulted in delays that proved beneficial by helping to prevent overbuilding.
Had the project moved forward rapidly, the district now might be closing recently rebuilt schools. The district also wisely shifted its thinking about which schools to do first. After starting with buildings in the worst shape, officials switched to targeting those where enrollment looked the steadiest.
Current plans call for the completion of 34 new or remodeled buildings, or 24 fewer than first planned. Whatever the final options, closings and reassignments will be necessary, as they have been for years. It’s not that the school rebuilding project has run out of money. It has run out of students.