An Instructive Lesson in Patience

The Numbers Add Up
Posted on 04/19/2018
Image of Superintendent David W. JamesPerhaps you have read before that I talk about the many "moving parts" of a large, public school system and how they can make guiding it a challenge. Even with most public institutions in this country undergoing significant downsizing in the past decade, we all still have myriad moving parts swirling around us. Your public school system here in Akron is no different in that it has fewer employees, administrators, school buildings and students than in its storied past.

Keep in mind, though, our smaller footprint comprises almost all new school buildings (community learning centers) with markedly lower maintenance and utility costs and greater capabilities for managing the technology demands of today and in the future.

Our taxpayers made a sound, wise investment when they joined us and then-Mayor Don Plusquellic in this $800 million rebuilding project more than 15 years ago. Plusquellic's leadership was key and his message prescient. Imagine the price we'll pay, he told us, if we do not do this.

Yes, indeed. Imagine that today we would have our average school building being nearly 100 years old. Instead, our average is under 10 years of age.

So, with 33 new schools and another ready to open in August (Case Community Learning Center) and the decommissioning of many of our old buildings that were costly to maintain and repair, we have a sleek, modern fleet of educational centers for our students and families.

Obviously, school occupancy levels affect our financial health. And although we want every building to be full of kids, our population trends in Akron have left some buildings crowded and others two-thirds full.

We have had to be flexible and creative to work with drastic population changes that have affected Akron as a city. Based on the design of the schools, or the cost per square foot, and the number of students enrolled, our district-wide average for occupancy is 82 percent. (Best practices levels are 80-85 percent.)

It has taken time. It has taken patience. We're not where we want to be yet, but we heard news from our chief financial officer several weeks ago that made us feel as if our patience is now paying off.

Our enrollment numbers join other equally encouraging data that show responsible management and spending, when compared with our peers, according to our CFO Ryan Pendleton.

Mr. Pendleton shared with our board at its last meeting in March how we stack up against Canton, Cleveland, Lorain, Euclid, Springfield, Dayton, Toledo, Cincinnati and South-Western.

The Ohio Department of Education has reported that our enrollment, which had declined for more than a decade, has remained level since 2016.

In a city that once had 70,000 pupils in its public schools and just under 80,000 living within its boundaries more than a generation ago, Akron now has about 27,000 students available to attend Akron Public Schools and roughly 21,000 of those actually attending.

But families have more options now for schooling, and we have fewer children living in our city. Families now can opt for private schools, online schools, charter schools and home school. The good news includes our seeing more students each year coming back to APS and fewer students choosing to leave for charter schools.

Our pre-k and kindergarten programs are both showing better enrollment numbers than we have seen in quite a while, and the enthusiasm being generated by our new College & Career Academies of Akron is creating excitement throughout the city and suburbs. Both may bode well for future enrollment statistics.

Here is where the news from the department of education gets even better. To be responsible to our taxpayers, our students and their families, we feel our investment has to tip toward the classroom and instruction.

The Ohio Department of Education reports APS spends more on student support and instruction, and less on operations and administration, when compared with other urban school districts, according to the state's district profile reports (CUPP Report).

As Mr. Pendleton told Cleveland.com, "We've reached an operational efficiency that's very respectable as far as taxpayer dollars."

I would agree. And the substantial investment made in efficient, new facilities has brought our annual cost of operating them way down.

In other words, the dollars are where they're supposed to be, as Mr. Pendleton told the board. We're stretching dollars while still protecting programs (see graph below).

Image of ODE Enrollment Chart
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