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CPS' proposal to merge schools gets pushback from communities

Walnut Hills Area Council President Mona Jenkins addresses the media
Zack Carreon
Walnut Hills Area Council President Mona Jenkins addresses the media on Feb. 5, 2024.

Cincinnati Public Schools is set to lose close to $90 million in annual federal funding once the money from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, or ESSER, expires later this year.

The COVID-era funding sent out to school districts in March of 2020 was intended to close learning gaps and keep schools afloat during the pandemic. Districts like CPS received large sums of money from ESSER, and the additional funds quickly became a crucial part of the district's budget.

As the district prepares for the loss of funding, some serious cuts are on the table, including the merger of multiple schools.

On top of positions being cut and other changes, the CPS School Board is also considering the possibility of combining Frederick Douglass Elementary in Walnut Hills with nearby Evanston Academy and closing one of the buildings. The board is also looking at merging South Avondale Elementary and Rockdale Academy, along with a plan to close Riverview East Academy and repurpose the building.

RELATED: CPS Board of Education approves new fiscal year budget

The proposals put forward by the board's Ad Hoc Committee are projected to save the district millions and will get it closer to a balanced budget for the next fiscal year. So far, much of the plan has support from administrative leaders, but some members of the community want to halt the plan.

On Monday, residents from Walnut Hills gathered in front of Frederick Douglass Elementary to voice their concerns.

"Frederick Douglass does not exist in a silo; it's enmeshed in the very fabric of the neighborhood," said Samantha Reeves, director of the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation.

Community members spoke about the importance of having a school in their neighborhood and questioned why the district couldn't come up with a proposal that could keep schools off the chopping block when it knew the additional ESSER dollars would eventually go away.

"COVID money was bonus money to fill gaps. This has been a long time coming and we have to pay attention to this," Mona Jenkins, president of the Walnut Hills Area Council, said. "We're watching a slow leak, and now all of a sudden the bridge has collapsed and we're drowning our babies. And we here are not going to allow that to happen."

RELATED: Middletown Schools to cut 43 jobs as federal funding runs out

With the loss of the extra ESSER funding, combined with rising expenses and staff wages, CPS is facing an estimated budget gap of almost $100 million next fiscal year. The proposed school mergers and other cuts are projected to save the district around $67.8 million. But even with that, CPS leaders are still starting an estimated $31.9 million in reductions that still have to be proposed and approved.

Since November, CPS has held community roundtable sessions to gather input on how it should deal with the impending funding loss. According to the district's survey data from those sessions, more than half of the respondents said they would be supportive of consolidating or reconfiguring some of the city's schools to meet its budget.

Most of the respondents were either parents or guardians, staff members, or students. More than half of the people who participated in the discussions and surveys were white, while about 40% were either Black, Hispanic, or multi-racial. Only around 20% of students in the school district are white.

During the district's school board meeting Monday night, hundreds of parents, teachers, and community members for schools across CPS filled the district's central office to speak out against the possible mergers.

The public comment portion of the meeting alone lasted more than two hours as many speakers blasted the administration and board members for moving too quickly without gathering enough input directly from the communities that would be affected the most by the mergers.

In response, Board President Eve Bolton said the board had no plans to immediately vote or make a final decision on such a drastic proposal. She said the response from the night's many speakers will be helpful moving forward.

"Tonight, this has been wonderful," Bolton said. "CPS is alive and well and people care about their schools and they want to protect and preserve their schools."

Another board member, Kareem Moffett said the response they received showed how the district failed to reach the broader school community for input on such an important issue. 347 people participated in CPS engagement sessions over two months, while Monday's meeting had more people in the auditorium and watching online.

"You don't have to try hard to engage community. We could've surveyed the people that were here today. We had 604 people online. We had two or three hundred people in here," Moffett said. "They were not engaged. The marketing of our schools is lacking and engagement is too."

CPS leaders say they plan to go back to the drawing board to develop more options to balance the district's budget. The board will meet again to discuss plans further next Wednesday.

Zack Carreon is Education reporter for WVXU, covering local school districts and higher education in the Tri-State area.