As the Buchtel CLC parent teacher association president, Diana Autry used to attend Akron Public Schools board meetings and speak during public comment, but she mostly watched the business of the board fly by her with sometimes limited discussion or dissent.
“I found it frustrating that everything seemed to me, was unanimous,” Autry said. “I’m like, does anybody have an independent thought?”
Now, a year after four out of seven board seats turned over last January, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction.
A few meetings have topped five hours, compared to one or two. Discussions of single topics have taken deep dives, with board members peppering staff members with questions. Many votes on big-ticket items such as whether to seek a levy or let athletic teams play during the pandemic have been split 5-2 or 4-3.
Autry, a registered nurse who was appointed to the board as one of the four new members last year, sees all of that as a positive, especially given the monumental and unprecedented decisions the pandemic required the board to tackle in the last year.
But after a year, not everyone sees it the same way.
Concerns have percolated in the community and among some Akron Public Schools board members for months about the dynamics of the board and its direction.
Some are questioning whether these factors could impact the massive challenges the board faces in the coming months, including a search for a new superintendent, a possible levy request and solidifying a plan to return students and teachers to in-person learning.
In an interview, Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan said he has expressed his concerns but they have not always been received as he had hoped, particularly as it relates to impressing upon the new members the good work that came before them.
“New ideas and new people on legislative bodies and moving into leadership, that’s always a good thing for a community,” Horrigan said. “But it’s also important to recognize that a lot of people I think have put a significant amount of work to make the Akron Public Schools successful, and we want to continue that track.”
In October, 14 community leaders, including Horrigan and the heads of several local nonprofits and corporations that have significant investments in Akron schools, signed a letter to the board outlining priorities they saw for the board, and offering their help.
Some on the receiving end said they saw the letter as merely a sign of the great relationships between the community leaders and the board, and a generous offer for support during a difficult time.
Others saw it as more than a gentle nudge toward staying on track with the priorities of Superintendent David James’ administration after he retires in June, and an indication that the community is concerned.
“I think it’s safe to say in the time I’ve been on the board we’ve not received a letter like that from our community partners,” said Patrick Bravo, a 10-year veteran of the board who served as its president last year.
While the letter was written three months ago, interviews with community leaders and board members over the last week show concerns still remain about not having built relationships with new board members.
On Monday, the board will decide who its leader will be for this critical year.
“People just don’t know who they are”
In the early days of 2020, four new board members — Autry, Derrick Hall, N.J. Akbar, and Valerie McKitrick — took their oaths of office for the Akron school board.
None of the four had held elected office before, and were relatively unknown to the board members or community leaders.
The newly formed board had about eight weeks together before the pandemic hit.
Ever since, meetings have been held over videoconference. Tough conversations have played out live over YouTube, sometimes with hundreds of people watching.
Board member Lisa Mansfield — a Summit County Probate Court employee who with 12 years of service is one of the veteran members, along with Bravo and Bruce Alexander — said building relationships on a school board is hard enough without doing it over a Zoom call.
“There’s no natural conversation, it’s all stilted, it’s all broken,” she said. As a result, “we haven’t gotten to break down a lot of those barriers.”
Normally, board members would also see each other at school or community events, which were all canceled or moved online this year.
Marco Sommerville, the city’s deputy mayor for intergovernmental affairs and a senior advisor to the mayor, was one of the 14 to sign the letter to the board. He said the new members are all successful, reasonable people who care about the school system.
“I think the biggest problem they have: people just don’t know who they are,” Sommerville said. “And if you haven’t worked with people, you’re a little more skeptical of them. But the only way to get to know people is to sit down and talk — and with COVID, that makes it a little more difficult. But it’s a necessary thing that needs to happen.”
Jim Mullen, CEO of United Way of Summit and Medina, also noticed the impact of COVID-19 on building those relationships.
“I think there was just a gap of opportunity for particularly the new members of the school board to really connect with the community,” he said.
As a result, he said, leaders who have heavy investments in the district — like United Way, which spearheads the community side of the district’s College and Career Academies — are unsure about the priorities. The split votes, although not always with the same board members on either side, give the impression everyone is not “rowing in the same direction,” Mullen said.
“Any time you’re hiring the most important position in the organization, and the decision’s in the hands of that group, I think there would always be angst if you’re not clear on what the vision is,” he said. “And I think a lot of that lack of understanding of a vision has a lot to do with all of us being on Zoom and phone calls, and that human interaction element has gone away.”
Some of the questions asked in the board meetings — the fourth hour of one meeting this fall included a discussion of the usability of drinking fountains whenever schools reopen — have been “head-scratching at times,” Mullen said.
Mansfield, who will have the gavel at Monday’s meeting before the board selects its new president for the year, said she worries the board drifts away from its purpose of governing, not running the district.
“Knowing what kind of cleaner we’re going to use to disinfect is not our job,” she said. “We have extremely qualified people whose job it is to bring that.”
Those kinds of questions can be time-consuming, she said, but could also impact the district staff.
“Then senior staff, I think, and staff, feels not trusted and not validated, and we don’t want that to happen either.”
Alexander, a 30-year employee of Summit County Juvenile Court also in his 12th year as a board member, said he believes the board should take care to stick to its governing role.
“It’s OK to have questions but it’s not our job to run the district, so we have to be careful with trying to get too far into the weeds and saying we want this, we want that,” he said. “I don’t believe in micromanaging. It’s not easy to do your job when you have individuals trying to micromanage.”
Superintendent David James said the board’s focus should be on the big picture. Still, he said, he doesn’t mind the questions, and many of them are to be expected with four new board members joining at once trying to get up to speed.
“People want to show they’re engaged and they care,” he said.
‘Trying to learn as fast as we can’
The learning curve for new board members has been especially steep in the past year, with the education world forced to go through some of its biggest changes ever in a matter of weeks.
The four new board members barely had time to learn how things work in the district before things didn’t work that way anymore.
The result, Derrick Hall said, is a lot of questions asked.
“The questions are not born from a lack of trust,” he said. “It’s born from us trying to learn as fast as we can.”
Increasing transparency is also a goal, he said, which means he sometimes asks questions so anyone in the public who is watching can hear the answer. That’s what he was doing in a December meeting, he said, when he asked a pointed question of Assistant Superintendent Ellen McWilliams-Woods after a 45-minute presentation about the higher rates of students failing classes during remote learning.
“It sounds like we’re saying, ‘Oh well, there’s not a whole lot we can do until we get back to in-person learning in January or February,’ ” Hall, a health care executive with Summa Health System, said in the meeting.
“If that’s the impression that I’ve given tonight, then that’s a rather egregious impression, if that’s what you took away, that we’re not doing extraordinary measures right now to intervene and that we’re just kind of hanging out waiting for kids to fail,” McWilliams-Woods replied.
Hall said it’s easier over Zoom to have tone or meaning come across differently than intended. It’s even harder, he said, when no one knows each other well.
Bravo, who is the executive director of the Summit County Land Bank, said he has taken issue with the narrative that the board didn’t used to be transparent. One of his priorities during his tenure was to create true committees within the board to increase the amount of public discussion, he said.
That would often account for the quick and often unanimous votes in business meetings, Bravo said, because issues were worked out in committee meetings.
“I absolutely agree with the notion of transparency,” Bravo said. “But that doesn’t mean we put on a show of transparency, that means we be transparent.”
Akbar, one of the new members who served as vice president in his first year on the board, said the board’s diverse backgrounds have made for robust discussions full of differing perspectives, accounting for both the long meetings and split votes.
“Yes, our meetings at times have gotten really long, but think about it,” Akbar said. “It’s because we’ve had the opportunities to have more people express their concerns and ideas about some very difficult, unprecedented incidences that we’ve had to manage.”
Once they reach a decision, he said, the full board stands behind it.
McKitrick, a retired teacher and the other new member of the board, declined to comment for this story.
Akbar said he didn’t see the letter from the city leaders as a negative.
“I thought the letter was the community leaders’ opportunity to express their commitment to the district and they shared that commitment,” he said.
Hall said when he received the letter, he saw it as a “clear signal” they needed to work on their relationships outside of the board as well.
“You have a very important community institution and now you’ve got four people on the board who up until now were really unknown quantities,” Hall said. “And now you’ve got some four people on board who are leading a board during a pandemic. I think it’s natural for folks to have some apprehension and to have some concerns.”
But the mayor said even after conversations with the school board, his concerns remain.
“Sometimes it feels like all the old ways are not good enough, we have to do something new,” Horrigan said.
Possibility of naming interim superintendent
The board is slated to launch its search for a new superintendent within the next month, with the goal of having someone in the job before James leaves at the end of June.
While hiring the superintendent is a key function of a school board, Mansfield said the top priority right now should be figuring out how to get students back into schools.
“It supersedes everything,” she said.
The district created several iterations of plans, but all were scrapped or postponed due to rising COVID-19 case numbers in Ohio and Summit County. Students have been learning remotely since the school year began in September. A plan dubbed “Remote Plus” to get at least small numbers of struggling students some in-person interventions was tentatively going to start Jan. 19, but no decision has been announced.
Horrigan said he was concerned about a lack of a plan to reopen school buildings, even if the plan needs to be tweaked or held off as COVID-19 case numbers fluctuates.
Horrigan said as a result, he would like to see the board name an interim superintendent from within to avoid doing a search at the same time as trying to get through a possible levy and reopening schools.
“Those are a lot to do one at a time, and when you’re trying to manage and do all three, your level of success could depend upon a lot of different things outside your control,” he said.
Several board members said they would be open to that conversation.
What’s needed to “inspire that confidence”
The letter to board members from the community leaders, dated Oct. 6, was written and circulated by the leader of the GAR Foundation, Christine Mayer.
The message, she said, was, “You guys do have an awful lot on your plate, but you do have supporters out there.”
It laid out supporting College and Career Academies, a possible levy and the superintendent search as areas where stakeholders saw significant challenges the board would have to face, in addition to the challenges presented by the pandemic.
In addition to the longer meetings and the split votes, Mayer said her team noticed the “nature of the dialogue has been somewhat different than in the past.”
The last paragraph of the letter notes that in past years the community has “benefited from the healthy working relationship between the Board of Education and the district leadership team.”
“This is not to say that they have agreed on everything, but it is to say that they have conducted themselves with professionalism, respect, and civility that stands as a model for APS students and community stakeholders alike,” the letter read. “In these trying times, with so many tough questions facing the Board of Education, we believe that a healthy working dynamic between the Board and district leadership is paramount.”
Following the letter, GAR, United Way and a few other nonprofit organization leaders made a presentation to board members about who they are and why they are invested in the district, during in an informal meeting that was not public.
Akbar, an associate vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion at Kent State University, said he thought everyone left the meeting on the same page about wanting to have a strong relationship.
“I believe we’ve had a very open and transparent board who’s been willing to listen,” Akbar said.
Horrigan said he would still like to see the board commit publicly to reinforcing the academy model and building on those relationships, along with naming an interim superintendent. That, he said, would inspire more confidence in the board.
“I named some things that I think would inspire that confidence…To build upon what’s good and then make the adjustments to what needs to be improved,” Horrigan said. “But like I said, I don’t think I’ve seen that so far, at least not to the level I’d like to see.”
Responding to the mayor’s comments, Bravo said the board would have to take a hard look at itself.
“It worries me any time our partners would feel a lack of confidence in this board or its ability to continue to do the right thing for our students in this district,” he said. “That’s something that we would need to take a serious look at internally.”
Reporter Doug Livingston contributed to this story. Contact education reporter Jennifer Pignolet at jpignol[email protected], at 330-996-3216 or on Twitter @JenPignolet.
This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Concerns raised as Akron Public Schools board confronts major challenges in 2021