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New ‘Akron Plan’ for free tuition meant to promote city

2/21/2008 - West Side Leader
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By Stephanie Kist

AKRON — The end result would be a more educated work force and a more desirable city. But there’s a long road of questions and planning laid out before that end result can be reached.

Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic announced two weeks ago at his State of the City address he intends to explore the sale of Akron’s sewer system for somewhere between $100 million and $250 million. The revenue would be used to start a special fund to assist high school graduates pay for college.

“I’ve always wanted to see a scholarship program that would allow our high school seniors to know that they can get a college degree or vocational certificate without having to worry where the money is going to come from,” the mayor stated in a follow-up press release. “This is one of the legacies I’ve always wanted to leave behind after my many years in office.”

The plan, which Plusquellic is referring to as an “Akron Plan for the 21st Century,” is an Akron-centric one indeed. The funding would only be available for Akron Public Schools graduates who plan to attend The University of Akron or an advanced trade school in Akron.

Children who are residents of the city of Akron but attend private school or a neighboring district would not be eligible for free tuition.

“This is to reward those who send their kids to Akron Public Schools,” said Plusquellic’s spokesman, Mark Williamson. “APS has been hard hit by people moving out, or sending their kids to private schools. If we can improve our schools, get more students back in them with this incentive and bring them back to where they used to be academically, that makes our city stronger. Rewarding private schools and kids who choose to go to other public schools does not serve that purpose.”

Plusquellic’s plan is loosely modeled after The Kalamazoo Promise, with some big differences. The Kalamazoo Promise is funded privately and allows graduates from Kalamazoo Public Schools to access financial aid to attend any public college in Michigan.

Also, Plusquellic envisions a “last-dollar” program, meaning that students must apply for all available aid first.

“Our community should not lose federal funds and scholarships that deserving students are already entitled to receive,” Plusquellic said in the release. “The Akron program would pick up where other scholarships leave off and will provide the ‘last dollar’ needed for tuition and mandatory fees.”

However, the intention in Akron would be for the same results Kalamazoo is seeing, according to Plusquellic: new homes, increased property values and residents moving back into the city.

A high school education is no longer enough to succeed, Plusquellic said. Additionally, with Akron courting high-paying jobs, a college-educated work force is needed all the more, he said.

Akron City Council would need to approve the sale of the sewer system, Williamson said. Some Council members indicated they would need a lot more information before they could throw their support behind the mayor’s plan.

Ward 8 Councilman Bob Keith said in theory it’s a “great idea. Can you pull it off? I don’t know.”

He said it’s early in the process and a lot remains to be seen.

“One, who’s going to buy the [sewer] system?” he said. “Two, how can we assure the citizens that the rates won’t go up for a long period of time?”

Keith characterized the city’s system as an old one that’s a drain on the city’s budget, and noted it comes attached to a $340 million mandate for upgrades from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. He said he didn’t know who would want to buy it.

At-large Council member Michael Williams, of West Akron, said he would gladly work with the mayor to develop a strategy to raise the funds for a scholarship program. Like Keith, he just doesn’t know that selling the sewer system is in the best interest of the residents.

“A private entity has a profit motive,” he said. “We don’t have a profit motive as a government entity, as a city running the sewer and water system.”

Williams said he would need to see a lot more information and analysis before throwing his support behind a plan to sell the sewer system.

“I think the intent, in terms of the end goal and setting up a scholarship fund, is a good idea,” Williams said. “I don’t know that selling the sewer system is the way to achieve that.”

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