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New Superintendent: Look (Out) For The Union Label

By Marc A. Tibbs 

The more things change, the more they stay the same.


Last year, Akron Education Association President Pat Shipe was instrumental in running former Schools Superintendent Christine Fowler-Mack out of town.  It might have been the best thing that ever happened to Mack, since she walked away with nearly a half-million dollars in unpaid salary, and an assurance that the Akron School Board could never tarnish her resume.


Well, Shipe’s disregard for your tax dollars has surfaced again. This time she’s gone on a rampage against newly appointed Superintendent Dr. Michael Robinson, this time over a $156,000 state tutoring program that wouldn’t cost the district one thin dime. 


State officials have made the funds available to assist students who have lagged behind in their testing since COVID reduced the number of in-school instruction hours.  On January 8, the Akron School Board voted 6-1 to hire an outside firm – Varsity Tutors – to administer the after-school program which would be paid for completely by the state. 


Shipe, however, is livid over the issue, saying that hiring an outside firm violates the union’s collective bargaining agreement with the district. Her union has filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the board as well as a civil lawsuit, seeking to prevent the board from implementing the tutoring program.


It doesn’t matter to Shipe that the online program is after school only, and that Akron teachers will be available to do the work if they so choose. Superintendent Robinson also said Akron teachers would be given first priority to fill the 2,400 hours of tutoring.


But Shipe, never one to let a good deed go unpunished or un-arbitrated, is willing to scuttle the whole program before letting the new superintendent get a win. She’s made conspiratorial accusations of video sabotage and board violations of the Open Meetings Act in attempts to tarnish the board’s decision.  The funds in question are a paltry sum compared to the board’s overall budget.


At last week’s board meeting, AEA members filled the room wearing their union garb and brandishing signs attacking the board’s decision.  The ruckus being raised over the program was so great that Robinson himself recommended the board rescind its earlier decision. But in a 5-2 vote, the board elected to leave the program in place and seek more information on the matter.  The board has until Feb. 1 to notify the state of its participation in the program.


In her zeal to fatten the union coffers, Shipe seems willing to sacrifice the progress of Akron’s most vulnerable students. State officials are making the funds available and allowing school districts to choose from 11 different state-approved vendors, of which Varsity Tutors is one.


It seems that if Shipe and her union have a grievance at all, it’s against the Ohio Department of Education which set the guidelines for districts to participate in the tutoring program. A close examination of comments Shipe made in her own union newsletter reveals just that.


“If State Legislators (sic) continue their attack on public education by funneling public money and resources to private companies,” she wrote, “what’s going to stop them from replacing teachers, tutors, counsellors, service providers, or any other public sector job with cheap, unqualified labor?”


It’s clear from her own words what irks the union president:  private companies getting public money to do what Akron teachers have been unable, unavailable, or unwilling to do – remediate the performance of students who’ve fallen behind due to COVID.


This looks like one of those battles that the AEA could have avoided. Having recently secured a sweetheart contract with the Board just last year, it seems that Shipe won’t be satisfied until she bankrupts the school system – a system that already is facing a $15 million shortfall.


But more importantly, this union debacle specifically hurts Akron students.  Without a one-on-one tutoring program like this, Black, brown, and marginalized children, who suffered more from COVID than any other demographic, will continue a downward spiral and perhaps never recover from their academic setbacks.


The AEA needs a leader who can do more than try to wring every dime out of a financially struggling school district. It needs someone who is a committed educator, and who has the best interest of Akron’s most vulnerable students at heart.


When it comes to the union label in Akron public schools, Pat Shipe’s label isn’t “made in America,” her label is that struggling students irredeemable.  She gives labor unions a bad name.


Rev. Marc A. Tibbs , a media consultant and retired journalist, is a columnist for The Reporter- Akron’s oldest African American weekly newspaper. He is the Senior Pastor of The Centenary United Methodist Church in Akron, Ohio.





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