Voters to decide on scholarship plan

October 24, 2008

Akron high school graduates of the class of 2009 could have an opportunity that their predecessors may have never imagined in their lifetimes if a much-talked-about ballot issue passes Nov. 4.

For the first time in the city’s history, an ambitious city plan to lease the Akron sanitary sewer system to a private operator could result in free scholarships for every Akron resident who wishes to pursue higher education upon graduation from high school.

Akron City Council interrupted its summer recess to pass an ordinance that places Issue 8 on the ballot, giving voters the option to say ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ to the Akron Scholarship Plan.  The ordinance passed adds a new section to the city charter which, among other things: establishes the Akron Scholarship Plan; authorizes the lease of the sewer system to a private operator; and guarantees a 3.9 percent cap on annual rate increases.

That initial step – getting the issue on the ballot – was important enough for Council to move on quickly. That way, Council President Marco Sommerville said, the will of the people can be heard on the issue come Election Day.

“We have a tremendous opportunity to accomplish something that’s never been done in this city’s history – give every high school graduate who wants it an opportunity for free higher education,” Sommerville (W-3) said.  “No matter what the arguments are on either side of this issue, the implications for the concept alone are just so exciting that the idea deserves serious thought and consideration.”

Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic introduced the idea during his State of the City Address early this year. Plusquellic said proceeds from the lease would be placed into a scholarship fund to be managed by the Akron Community Foundation.  Scholarships would pay for tuition at the University of Akron and other trade or community colleges in the area.

Some residents have questioned whether turning over the reins of the sewer system to a private operator would mean higher rates, a decline in services and job losses. To address some of those fears, the mayor appointed an Akron Scholarship Plan Advisory Committee to study all of the implications of the plan and offer recommendations in the best interests of Akron residents. The committee recommended a plan which includes employee and consumer protections, caps on rate increases and maintaining environmental and customer service standards.

Council’s Public Utilities Committee Chair James P. Hurley III (W-1) served on the advisory committee. In his capacity as committee chair and as an electrician who works with public utilities, Hurley was asked to participate. He accepted the invitation because he wanted to make sure that protections for workers and for vital city services would be part of the plan.

In fact, Hurley said he would not have participated or voted for the ballot initiative without any provisions for job protections. It is because of that commitment to jobs that Hurley said Council passed the second ordinance to make sure sewer employees who choose not to work for the new operator have jobs in the city with the same pay and benefits.

“Certainly I had reservations because of the jobs question; I am a firm believer in a fair day’s wage,” Hurley said. “But as a whole, I agree with what the mayor is trying to do if it means educating our citizens.”

Council passed additional legislation that makes clear who is eligible. Originally, the mayor proposed scholarships for graduates of all Akron public and approved nonprofit high schools. The ordinance expands eligibility to include Akron resident G.E.D. recipients, home schooled students and those who – due to state law – attend schools in adjoining suburbs such as Coventry, Springfield and Copley.

Household income will not be considered when awarding scholarships, but applicants would be directed to first apply for available financial aid. They would also be required to live and work in Akron for 30 years, or repay the scholarship money if they decide to move.

Sommerville said Council’s decision to pass the three related ordinances boils down to the greater good for the greater amount of people.

“If this passes, this city will have a period of adjustment to deal with,” Sommerville said. “But at the end of the day, what’s at stake here is the potential for every high school graduate in Akron to have a quality education no matter their family income.

“We’re on the verge of something big here.”