Board to Examine Release of Building Inventory

District Right Sizing Continues
Posted on 10/08/2018
Image of Imagine Akron Schools Logo(Theresa Cottom-Bennett writing for Ohio.com/Akron Beacon Journal)

When Akron Public Schools first embarked on its district-wide facilities upgrade project back in 2003, a promise to have every child in a new or renovated building within 15 years was solidified by a partnership between the schools, city and state.

But as the master facilities plan reaches its final stretch, the district is still left with four schools that have not been touched and an additional 10 that sit void of students.

Now, the district is beginning talks of how to raise money to renovate or rebuild those remaining schools while reducing its footprint to reach optimal enrollment capacity.

Moving target
When the facilities project was first presented, leaders anticipated a budget of about $800 million to renovate or rebuild all 58 of the district’s schools.

The Ohio Facilities Construction Commission (then the Ohio School Facilities Commission) helped calculate the budget based on the level of enrollment in the district. It agreed to fund 59 percent of the project — a percentage determined by the level of poverty in the district.

Meanwhile, an income tax hike approved in 2003 funded the rest of the project and solidified a deal with the city to turn all new buildings into community learning centers (CLCs), which could open up for public use after school hours.

The Ohio Facilities Construction Commission (OFCC) regularly reviewed enrollment to adjust the budget accordingly. When the project started, Akron had about 30,000 students.

But over the course of that 15 years, the district lost nearly a third of its student population.

The jolt in enrollment led to difficult decisions for the district, including choosing which remaining schools to fund with the unexpectedly lower level of students.

With a new Ellet CLC set to open next fall and funding secured for the new CLC for Kenmore-Garfield students, money from OFCC is coming to an end as the agency has fulfilled its commitment to funding its share of the district’s remaining 21,000 students.

In total, 33 CLCs were built and nine buildings were renovated since the project began.

However, four schools remain untouched by any renovations whatsoever: Pfeiffer and Firestone Park elementaries, Miller South School for the Visual and Performing Arts, and North High School. The four schools hold a total of about 1,950 students.

“The big problem for us has been the population decline,” said Superintendent David James. “If it wasn’t for that, we would have had those other buildings most likely covered.”

Sizing it up
In addition to choosing which schools to fund throughout the project, officials also had to choose which schools to close. By 2008, the district had the capacity to hold nearly double the amount of students than were actually enrolled.

Since the project began, 20 schools have closed, bringing district enrollment to about 82 percent of its capacity in its remaining 46 buildings.

That’s much closer to the goal of 85 percent, said District Treasurer Ryan Pendleton.

Aside from the condition of schools — most of which were in dire need of repair — building enrollment was a major determinant in which schools to renovate in the attempt to reach 85 percent capacity at the individual level as well.

It’s part of the reason schools like Ellet, at 92 percent capacity, was chosen over North to rebuild, which is at 59 percent capacity.

Still, with an influx of refugee resettlement, North High School will likely see a much larger population entering its doors soon. Some schools in the North cluster, like Findley CLC, are nearing their capacity, while others, like Jennings and Harris Jackson CLCs, are already over their limit.

District spokesperson Mark Williamson said the population of students in the district is often fluid, and over the course of the project, certain school clusters had a higher influx in students than others.

“Schools serve the community best when full. But, we also deal with a moving target, and as CLCs were designed and built, much changed in Akron ... Had we had a crystal ball, we might have done some things differently,” Williamson said. “But, that is the nature of such long-term projects. North Akron is a fine example of that target moving ... as population, and thus enrollment, grow in a community that, only five years ago, was on our drawing board for considerable downsizing.”

Moving forward
Now, the district is in beginning talks of what to do with the rest of the district’s facilities.

On Monday, the board of education will vote on what to do with the district’s remaining 10 buildings that were once schools but were closed due to consolidation and now serve as storage. The buildings still have insurance and maintenance costs, and some still have utilities such as electricity, security alarms and telephone lines.

Pendleton said the goal is to dispose of the buildings in a way that will provide the best value back to taxpayers, whether through accepting a bid from an interested buyer at auction, partnering with the city or county for future land swaps, or converting them into residential areas for a change in tax status.

“Every building will need to be evaluated on that front,” Pendleton said.

Pendleton said money from the 10 buildings would not be enough to renovate even one of the remaining four schools.

However, James said the goal is still to build new facilities for the remaining schools.

“We will need to raise money for some facilities,” Pendleton said, although he declined to elaborate yet on what fundraising options may be pursued. “Akron has a tendency to come up with really innovative approaches to funding schools.”
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