The eight candidates for three seats on the Akron Public Schools board tackled questions of school safety, teacher recruitment and personal investment in the school system during the first of two main candidate debates Tuesday night.
The two-hour debate, which about 100 people attended at the Akron-Summit County Public Library in downtown Akron, also gave each candidate a chance to share their personal story, what drives them to run for the board and what makes them a good candidate for a school board of an urban district.
Barbara Sykes, the former state representative and Akron City Council member, talked about growing up in the deep south with only one parent who could read, and with neither parent finishing high school.
“My lifelong experience, just simply growing up in a household with extreme poverty, and understanding, appreciating and believing that the way to make the difference was to go to school, to do my homework, to make sure that I could read and I could write, and I could take care of myself,” Sykes said. “And that education would get me out of poverty.”
Phil Montgomery, the director of finance and budgeting for Summit County government, talked about his single mother raising him and his siblings on her own, and relying on public school and other publicly available services.
“My mom couldn’t make the ends meet all the time,” Montgomery said. “So I’ve seen the need for the wraparound services. I’ve experienced it; I’ve lived it.”
Rene Molenaur, a University of Akron educator and the only current board member, talked about growing up in Akron, seeped in the diversity of her neighborhood, and living now with her family in the house her grandparents built.
“And as a member of the Asian community, I would say that with our growing immigrant and refugee population, I think leaning into our diversity is our greatest strength,” Molenaur said.
Keith Mills talked about falling “through the cracks” and into homelessness before earning his high school equivalent degree and then later his bachelor’s and master’s degrees and becoming a teacher in Cleveland’s school system.
“I think my experience is quite unique,” Mills said. “I serve kids who are like me, who were couch surfing, going around on the bus and not going to school. I know these students.”
Myron Lewis, a retired probationary officer and substance abuse counselor, talked about how his mother was a teacher but he was held back in the third grade.
“I’ve been there,” he said. “I understand what it feels like. And I want to make sure that no child feels like I felt.”
Summer Hall, a community outreach coordinator for the city of Akron, talked about the legacy of her great-aunt Helen Arnold, the first Black woman to serve on the Akron school board, and her grandmother, Marian T. Hall, a civil rights activist.
“It taught me a great deal of how to treat each other, how to fight for what’s right,” Hall said. “And I’m here to fight for our children.”
Gwen Bryant, a former teacher, shared about having to fight for her education, attending high school as one of only a few Black students in a college preparatory school where “parents wrapped around the building and didn’t want us to come in.”
“I’ve always chosen to teach in urban schools. It was my choice. I could have went someplace else,” Bryant said. “But I knew the impact that I, being there, showing my face, would make on our students.”
Patrick Bravo, a former 10-year member of the school board and its former leader, talked about growing up in a home with drug, alcohol and physical abuse in rural Indiana as a Latino and a member of the LGBTQ community.
“I was the minority,” he said, and gave examples of the racist and homophobic slurs that were hurled at him.
Each candidate was asked to say, if they have children or had school-aged children, where they attend or attended school.
Bravo has one son in the district. Molenaur has two biological children and one exchange student attending APS schools. Both of Montgomery’s daughters attend an Akron school. Sykes’ children attended APS.
Lewis said he doesn’t have children but has had nieces and nephews in the district.
Mills said his three children attend Catholic school because his wife is Catholic and so are his children, though he went to Akron Public Schools.
But two candidates said their children started in APS but they later moved them due to poor experiences or other schools offering options or better meeting their children’s needs.
Bryant said her son started in Akron schools, but she transferred him out because the school was not meeting the needs of his learning disability.
Hall said her oldest went to Archbishop Hoban for high school, despite wanting to go to Buchtel CLC, because Hoban had a mock trial program and she wanted to be a lawyer. Her youngest, she said, now in fourth grade, started off in APS, but she transferred her because her daughter was consistently finishing her work early and was left with nothing to do, and told not to disrupt other students who were still working.
“I was excited for her to be in Akron Public Schools, but we did not have the best experience,” Hall said.
Akron school board candidates discuss safety, College and Career Academies, teacher retention and recruitment
As the district continues to face declining enrollment, partly due to changing demographics but also parent concerns over safety in schools, the candidates talked about better telling the district’s story of its offerings while also addressing the concerns.
Sykes said safety is not just a school issue, but a community issue. It’s important, she said, to work with students to help them work through situations that might make themselves or others unsafe.
Montgomery cited the Yondr bags that lock up cellphones during the day and newly added metal detectors, but said school safety is also about making sure students have what they need in and out of school.
“It is something that we can continue to come together as a community on and respond holistically to what’s going on across the board in and out of the classrooms,” he said.
Asked about support for College and Career Academies, Bravo, who was on the board when the district rolled out the academy model across every high school in Akron, called them “absolutely transformative” for students.
“We are giving them an opportunity to explore and try and have those essential experiential learning opportunities that give them the ability to find out what they like and what they don’t like and where they might excel,” he said. “It is career and technical education on steroids.”
Hall said the academies are “amazing” because “no longer, a child has to feel like they’re not good enough because they don’t want to attend college.”
Lewis said it was important to look back earlier in students’ educational journeys to make sure they get a return on investment in the academies.
“Before we even get to thinking about college and careers, we need to make sure that all of our children can do things like read by the third grade,” he said.
On recruiting and retaining teachers, Mills said he applied several times to work in Akron and was either rejected or “ghosted.”
“I could go on ad nauseam about respect,” Mills said. “It’s not just about money.”
Bryant said Akron should be encouraging its own students to become teachers.
“We need to grow our own teachers, we have academies, grow our own teachers so that they come into the school district with a culture of understanding our students because they already have that background,” she said.
About the Akron school board debates
Tuesday’s debate was co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters Akron Area, the Akron Chapter of the NAACP, and the Akron Alumni Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.
The next debate is Tuesday at noon, hosted by the Akron Press Club in partnership with the Beacon Journal. The event will start at noon at Quaker Station, 135 S. Broadway. Doors open at 11 a.m. for lunch ahead of the event. Cost is $35 but free seating is available for those who do not wish to pay for lunch. Reservations are required and can be made at akronpressclub.org.
Contact education reporter Jennifer Pignolet at firstname.lastname@example.org, at 330-996-3216 or on Twitter @JenPignolet.