John Higgins

Akron Public Schools has eliminated its innovative anti-bullying program to balance the books this year, according to the latest five-year budget projections the school board approved at a special meeting Tuesday.

The program is part of the district’s Office of Drug/Violence Prevention, which is tasked with handling the social and emotional problems that can interfere with learning. Akron Public Schools had received funding for the program through competitive federal, state and local grants, which dried up in 2010 for all 50 states.

The bullying program manager’s full-time position has been cut, saving the district about $121,000 in wages and benefits. The equivalent of four full-time specialists have been cut, for a total savings of about $105,000. The program also loses its secretary, saving about $44,000 annually in wages and benefits.

The cuts to the anti-bullying staff are part of a plan the board approved earlier this month to eliminate 202 jobs, including 139 teachers. The cuts were necessary to help eliminate a $24 million deficit this year.

The staff cuts will save almost $15 million a year, minus about $540,000 needed to staff the new Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) high school opening this fall.

Bullying specialists were deployed to schools when problems flared up — often on Facebook — that interfered with learning. The part-time workers, who typically have a background in mental health or counseling, worked with individual bullies and their victims.

They also spoke to entire classrooms about how to respond to different bullying situations.

Akron’s program got national attention when the program manager, Merle Bennett Buzzelli, was quoted extensively in an article about anti-gay bullying in Ladies Home Journal.

Buzzelli told the Beacon Journal in 2010 that the program was unique.

“I know that we are the only district in the state who has bully prevention specialists who just do the work that we do,” Buzzelli said. “We’ve gone to national conferences, and to my knowledge, there’s no one across the country who has people who do the kind of work that we do at the level that we do. There are people who do dual jobs, but not people who just do the kind of work that we do.”

No longer affordable

Superintendent David James said Tuesday the district no longer can afford to pay for a stand-alone anti-bullying program.

“There’s work that will get shifted to other folks, but the work will still get done,” James said. “It won’t be a stand-alone program, but we will continue to investigate instances of bullying and still do the annual report.”

Board President Jason Haas said the board urged James to spare the program but understands the state does not require it.

“We told him that we’d like to maintain that program as much as possible because there’s a great value to it,” Haas said. “But it’s not an academic program.”

James said Buzzelli will be reassigned within the district.

The cuts might only be the beginning if the district cannot pass a levy in November.

Akron Public Schools will lose $1.75 million this calendar year in commercial and industrial property taxes because of an unanticipated 16 percent decline in valuation, Treasurer Jack Pierson said.

More cuts possible

Last fall, the district estimated that a 5.5-mill levy would collect $14.1 million a year. Voters narrowly defeated that request. The district would have to pass a 5.78-mill levy this year to collect the same amount because of the loss in commercial and industrial property values.

If the district cannot pass a levy this year, school officials will need to cut $28 million next year to avoid a deficit in the 2013-3014 school year, according to Pierson’s budget projections.

That document is called a five-year forecast, which Ohio school treasurers are required to submit to the state in October and in May.

Haas said it’s too soon to know how much millage to ask for in November. The district is negotiating with all of its labor unions.

“Contracts expire at the end of June. I don’t want it to drag out much past that,” Haas said. “A lot of that depends on what we get in negotiations, particularly on health-care concessions.”

The district has invited students, parents and community members to an evening of food, games and entertainment promoting Akron Public Schools at Lock 3 Park in downtown Akron from 6 to 9 p.m. today.

James said he wouldn’t characterize the event, called “APS Proud,” as a kickoff rally for the November levy campaign, but more as an opportunity to thank parents and community supporters and to highlight the district’s accomplishments. He said officials will talk about the need for a levy, however.

“We’ll talk about our financial situation, but we’ll talk about the good things that are happening in the district,” James said.

John Higgins can be reached at 330-996-3792 or jhiggins@thebeaconjournal.com. Read the education blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/education.