Akron Public Schools has had a top job open for 6 months. Will the board approve the finalist this time?

·8 min read
Christine Fowler Mack speaks to board members in April after being named the next superintendent of Akron Public Schools.
Christine Fowler Mack speaks to board members in April after being named the next superintendent of Akron Public Schools.

On her first day as superintendent of Akron Public Schools last July, Christine Fowler Mack asked the school board at a specially called meeting to approve the creation of a new assistant superintendent position.

The chief of learning and leadership would oversee the directors of elementary and secondary education and would support and help grow the district's principals and other leaders.

The board unanimously approved, and Fowler Mack said at the time she expected to have someone appointed within a matter of weeks.

Six months later, the job is still open.

In an interview, Fowler Mack said the position has gone unfilled due to a combination of factors, including bad timing with the administrative contract cycle and a slew of other priorities to manage as students returned to school this fall with COVID-19 still raging.

But there also was a qualified candidate ready to accept the position in December, until a two-plus-hour school board executive session left him in limbo. He withdrew days later.

It's unclear what role the board has played in the delays filling the second-in-command role. However, it may renew concerns expressed in the community last year, when the school board had hours-long meetings and split votes as it faced monumental challenges.

The board has since come together to run a superintendent search and hire Fowler Mack, also in a split vote but just 6-1, to replace the long-tenured superintendent David James. Two new members have joined the board this month and were not part of the executive session in December.

Fowler Mack said she is optimistic about being able to fill the assistant superintendent position, along with others that are likely to open in her Cabinet in the coming months, including the second assistant superintendent position with the looming retirement of Chief of Academics Ellen McWilliams-Woods.

"I'm very optimistic about the plan that I'm working on, and I'm gathering the needed input and I'm optimistic about our ability to move forward, get the team that Akron needs wrapped around the work of the district," Fowler Mack said.

She said another finalist has been interviewed for the new assistant superintendent position. Fowler Mack is expecting to present that finalist to the board for approval in the coming weeks.

N.J. Akbar
N.J. Akbar

School board President N.J. Akbar, voted into a second year as the board's leader last week, said he looks forward to supporting Fowler Mack's candidate for the job.

But the previous candidate, Youngstown City School District CEO Justin Jennings, said in an interview with the Beacon Journal he got the impression the board did not support him, and he didn't know why.

As someone who had served as a superintendent before, Jennings said that stood out to him, because the board only hires two people: a superintendent and a treasurer. While the board has a vote on all personnel appointments beyond that, typically a superintendent has room to choose their own Cabinet.

Youngstown City School District CEO Justin Jennings
Youngstown City School District CEO Justin Jennings

"They're normally a position in which you would get support, because it's your Cabinet that you're choosing," Jennings said.

Finalist decides to stay in Youngstown

Jennings said he was interested in the job because growing leaders is his area of expertise and his passion, and he respects Fowler Mack and wanted to work for her. He reached out to her, then interviewed for the job. He was one of four finalists, but Fowler Mack chose Jennings and negotiated a contract that would have paid him $183,102.07 in base salary, the upper limit of what the board had approved in July when the position was created.

Jennings drove to Akron from Youngstown on the evening of Dec. 13, with the approval of his contract on the Akron school board's agenda. His start date was set for Jan. 3.

In a rare move, the board went into a closed-door session early in the meeting, following the recognition of outgoing board members Lisa Mansfield and Patrick Bravo, but before any other business items on the agenda. Usually, executive sessions are reserved for the end of the meeting, and action is rarely taken afterward.

Akbar stated during the meeting the reason for the executive session was to consider the appointment, employment and compensation of a public employee or an official of a school district. He estimated it would take about 30 to 45 minutes.

Two and a half hours later, the board returned, but by that point, Jennings had left after waiting over two hours.

Jennings said in the interview he was not immediately aware the conversation was about him. The board was also set that night to conduct an evaluation of its treasurer, so he assumed that was what was happening.

But when the board returned, Fowler Mack said she was pulling Jennings's contract off the agenda, citing a need for further negotiations.

In an interview, Akbar said the board never officially considered Jennings's appointment because the item was removed from the agenda and he later withdrew.

"I know that there were some things that needed to be further considered by the superintendent," he said.

But Fowler Mack said in her interview, that when she brings a candidate to the board and puts them on the agenda, she has worked out everything with them ahead of a potential vote.

Although she wouldn't discuss any specific concerns of the board, Fowler Mack said she was able to speak with Jennings after the meeting about the position further, but by that time, he also was facing tension in Youngstown as word got out he might leave.

Jennings was appointed to the Youngstown job by a state academic distress commission and his term was ending, which was why he was job searching, he said in his interview.

Although he was excited about the Akron job, when the possibility of him leaving Youngstown became clear, the city showed a "groundswell" of support for him to stay, he said.

Jennings put out a news release in his community on Jan. 5 saying he had withdrawn from consideration for the Akron job and was committed to staying in Youngstown. It will be up to his school board there whether to keep him, but he said he wants to stay.

At the same time, he said, he was disappointed about what happened in Akron, though he knew nothing was final until it was official and received a board vote. He said once he felt the board did not support him, he thought it would be best for Fowler Mack for him to step away.

Jennings — who is in the process of earning his doctorate in education through educational research on school board dynamics — called it "one of the hardest things I had to do, because I really think the job would have been a good fit."

"Being in limbo, I didn't think it was fair for me but I also didn't think it was fair for Christine either," he said.

Akbar said Jennings has "the right to feel that way" about what happened.

"I believe that it's very customary for the board to have an opportunity to review all senior level positions prior to their appointment and I think the board very typically would support those recommendations," Akbar said.

Pool of candidates grows stronger

Akbar said the board approved the creation of that position because they believe it will make the district better, although he hasn't yet been overly concerned that the position is still open.

"Not having that position filled isn't going to get us where we want to go, so yes that is something that we take note of," Akbar said. "But I don't think it's necessarily prevented us from progressing."

Fowler Mack said Jennings withdrawing was a loss for Akron schools but "for him, he was in a win-win situation. It would have been a wonderful opportunity for us to work together."

Fowler Mack said when the job was created, she had a person in mind for it. But because the job was approved July 6, she was up against a July 10 deadline by which administrators across the state lock down their jobs for the next year. She said the bad timing resulted in her not being able to hire the person she initially wanted.

After that, she posted the job and received more than 60 applications. But as time has gone on, she said, the applicant pool has grown stronger because now the district is more in line with the hiring timeline for most administrators to be able to interview, negotiate and commit with enough time to give their current districts notice, if they are external candidates.

Fowler Mack said she believes she will be able to hire someone with enough time for them to overlap for at least a few months with McWilliams-Woods before she retires.

Fowler Mack said she also now, after six months on the job, has a deeper understanding of the organization and will be presenting additional plans to the board for her leadership team and the organizational structure.

She said she is hopeful and optimistic that will earn the board's support.

"I think the board wants to support me, and also wants a very strong team in place...I think the board is wanting to be helpful, informed, just in general," she said.

Contact education reporter Jennifer Pignolet at jpignolet@thebeaconjournal.com, at 330-996-3216 or on Twitter @JenPignolet.

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: A top Akron Public Schools job remains open six months after created