The Akron school board approved online tutors to help its struggling students. Then the teachers’ union sued

A local Ohio teachers’ union is suing its school board for allegedly violating an Open Meetings law when considering hiring a private tutoring company to address the reading crisis among the…

A local Ohio teachers’ union is suing its school board for allegedly violating an Open Meetings law when considering hiring a private tutoring company to address the reading crisis among the students.

The Akron Education Association filed a lawsuit against the Akron Board of Education for when, during the executive session portion of the Jan. 8 meeting, the board discussed the possibility of hiring Varsity Tutors to help 3rd graders who failed the state reading exam.

After returning to the public meeting, the school board voted 6-1 to hire Varsity Tutors using a $156,000 grant from the Ohio Department of Education. 

Reading proficiently in 3rd grade is crucial for public school students, since they will be expected to read for content in 4th grade and beyond. 

Students who struggle to read in those early elementary years have lower academic achievement, are more likely to drop out of school, and have reduced earning potential as adults. 

Akron’s decision to hire reading tutors reflects the greater statewide push to emphasize the science of reading and early reading instruction. 

The $156,000 grant would fund 2,400 one-on-one tutoring sessions for the 70% of Akron’s students who can’t read at grade level. 

However, the union’s lawsuit claims that the ABE violated Ohio’s public meetings law by discussing Varsity Tutors during the executive session. 

“The deliberate concealment of a critical discussion to this matter is an extremely concerning and serious offense, and in no way supports the Board’s assertion that they wish to conduct business in a transparent manner,” a press release from the teachers’ union read. 

Other public employee unions have rallied to AEA’s cause, claiming the district is trying to privatize education. 

“If you so readily outsource the jobs of our educators, I ask you who is next?” said Lorene Wise, president of the Ohio Association of Public School Employees Local 689. “What other employee will you deem unnecessary?” 

Additionally, the lawsuit alleges the school board tampered with the video footage of the meeting, deleting a 40 second clip during which one board member raised concerns about hiring Varsity Tutors. 

The AEA is asking the court not only to invalidate the ABE’s initial vote, but also to prevent the board from hiring any private tutoring service until the lawsuit is settled.  

This second request is particularly problematic, as the district will permanently lose the grant money on Feb. 1 if it isn’t used. 

Akron Superintendent Michael Robinson quickly dismissed the union’s claims. 

“Your statement about AEA members’ jobs being threatened and ‘disturbing assaults’ on the CBA [collective bargaining agreement] and working conditions are inflammatory words that are inaccurate,” he said.  

Robinson further explained that the district currently has 70 tutoring vacancies. And since tutors typically work within regular school hours, union teachers can’t be expected to fill those roles.  

The district also repudiated the union’s claims that the meeting video was tampered with, chalking the problem up to technical difficulties. 

“It’s a live video signal; we have no control over it,” Mark Williamson, district spokesperson, told local media. “To suggest that anyone was manipulating it in any way is absolutely absurd.”  

And Board President Diana Autry maintained that only legally allowed topics were discussed in the executive session. 

Since the lawsuit was filed, the board held a follow-up meeting on Jan. 22 where teachers protested but families supported the hiring of the private tutoring company.  

“They would be great help for my granddaughter who is struggling and needs the help,” said Cynthia Blake during the public comment portion of the meeting. “My daughter has an outside tutor and is picking up extra shifts at her job to pay for tutoring so she [her granddaughter] is not a burden or left behind.” 

“When students can’t read, we give them no chance,” added Pastor Gregory Harrison, whose godson was shot and killed by a teenage Akron boy who couldn’t read. 

At the Jan. 22 meeting, the superintendent gave the board the opportunity to rescind their original vote, but the board declined in favor of doing more research.  

“We want to serve kids,” Board Vice President Carla Jackson said afterward. “Infighting between adults doesn’t serve children.”