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Village Schools

Meeting eyes Yellow Springs Schools facilities

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About 40 villagers attended the school district’s first “Community Pulse” event on Thursday, June 15, at Yellow Springs High School. The event’s purpose was to focus on the condition of the district’s buildings, according to facilitator Steve Conn, a member of the Yellow Springs Board of Education.

“We hope to come to a more thorough understanding of what the buildings are like now, as a way to help us think what might be done in the future,” Conn said in greeting the audience.

The focus of the event was a recent assessment of the condition of local school buildings by the Ohio Facility Construction Commission, or OFCC, presented by OFCC planner Glenn Rowell. The state agency, which has spent more than $11 billion constructing new schools or repairing old ones in the last 20 years, is recommending the replacement of both YSHS/McKinney School and Mills Lawn Elementary with new buildings due to the cost of repairing both buildings. The OFCC assessment put the cost of renovating YSHS/McKinney at $15 million and building new at $17 million. For Mills Lawn, the assessors put the cost of repair at $10.02 million and replacement at $10.4 million.

The event also featured a tour of YSHS/McKinney School with an eye to its physical condition, and opportunities for questions from those who attended.

The pulse meeting was the first of three such events planned this summer, although the third time since March that the school district has engaged the community in discussing how best to address the physical conditions of local aging schools.    Mills Lawn was built in 1952, and YSHS in 1963. Previous meetings, facilitated by architect Mike Ruetschle, displayed drawings of several options, including constructing a combined K12 building on either the current Mills Lawn or YSHS location. According to Ruetschle at a May school board meeting, the district and community preference seems to be for a combined K12 building on the Mills Lawn location.

No decision yet

But at the June 15 meeting, Conn and other school leaders emphasized that no choices have yet been made. In response to a question from Bruce Heckman, who inquired whether the district has a “Plan B” if the public doesn’t support its preferred option, Conn stated that there is no preferred option so far.

“We don’t have a Plan B and we don’t have a Plan A yet,” Conn said. “We have six more months of this process before we get to a Plan A.”

School leaders have said they will decide at their December board meeting whether to move ahead with either rehabbing or replacing the buildings, in order to place a levy on the May 2018 ballot if a construction choice is made. The levy would be either for 11 mills or 13.2 mills, depending on whether for rehab or replacement. The levies would add, depending on the millage, an additional $380 or $490 yearly for each $100,000 of property value, or $760 or $980 for an average $200,000 village home.

At the June 15 pulse meeting, Rowell of the OFCC walked the group through the OFCC assessment, which was conducted by contractors hired by the agency. The assessment highlights the individual components of each building, and the cost of repairing or replacing each component.

“What does it take to get all the components up to OFCC standards?” he said.

The OFCC assessment can be found online on the school website at http://www.yellow-springs.k12.oh.us.

Since 1998, the OFCC has been working its way through the state’s 610 school districts, starting with the poorest districts, to either repair or replace school buildings in partnership with the districts, according to Rowell. Through its program, Classroom Facilities Assistance Program, or CFAP, the state agency offers subsidies to local districts for the cost, with the largest subsidies going to the poorest schools. So far, the agency has revamped schools in over 300 districts, often footing from 50 to 90 percent of the bill, depending on the wealth of the district. Because Yellow Springs is among the state’s wealthiest districts, ranked at 506 out of 610 districts, it will be several years before the agency gets to Yellow Springs, with a smaller state subsidy for the construction, of about 17 percent of the total cost.

However, the local schools can apply to another program, the Expedited Local Partnership Program, to move more quickly with addressing the needs of school facilities, he said, adding that the local board has already applied to the program. Also, to be eligible for state funding, a building needs to house at least 700 students, and the village currently has 754.

The OFCC will offer the 17 percent subsidy if the district chooses to replace its buildings, according to Rowell, although the subsidy is not guaranteed if the district chooses rehab instead. If the district chooses rehab, it will need to request a waiver from the state in order to receive the subsidy.

However, in an interview last week, Rowell said that he would need to be the “champion” of the district receiving a waiver to rehab rather than replace, and he would be reluctant to defend that choice.

“I don’t think I’d be comfortable giving a waiver,” he said.

Rowell also said that even if the district follows the OFCC recommendation to build new schools, the 17 percent state subsidy is not guaranteed. The district will initially foot the bill for the project through the ELPP plan while the state credits Yellow Springs with the 17 percent subsidy, to be reimbursed when the state gets to Yellow Springs in its CFAP program in several years. However, at that point a new master plan will need to be completed for the local project, and the subsidy could change.

“That 17 percent could be something else,” he said.

Villagers respond

After a tour of the high school/middle school facilities, community members raised questions and concerns regarding the facilities issue.

According to Dimi Reber, she was impressed during the tour with visual evidence of aging and decay in the buildings.

“I came with a bias for renovating rather than replacing,” she said, although the tour moved her toward understanding the severity of the problems. Still, “How do you weigh the wastefulness of simply destroying a building?” against the argument for something new.

“Affordability and wastefulness are very much on my mind,” she said.

Concerns about the effects of the proposed levy on affordability was also raised by Village Council member Judith Hempfling.

However, if the buildings aren’t replaced now, their problems will only get worse as they will keep aging, according to local builder Andrew Kline, a member of the school district’s facility committee.

“Twenty-five to $32 million are huge, scary numbers,” he said. “but at some point these buildings will reach the end of their lives.”

And putting off replacement until a later date will mean a higher cost than doing so now, he said.

As a school volunteer, David Turner said he often witnesses the problems caused by deteriorating facilities. Something needs to be done, he said, because such conditions can undermine students’ education.

“You don’t have to look closely to see there are a lot of places that need work,” he said, referring to both buildings.

Dale Hotaling asked if the district has considered somehow using the Antioch University Midwest building, which Antioch University recently announced is for sale.

The district has considered the option, but it doesn’t look promising, according to Conn.

“We’re in discussions, but on the face of it, there’s a number of problems,” he said, especially in that the university is seeking to sell the building at a price higher than the $13 million it paid for construction.

In response to school board member Aïda Merhemic’s question regarding why the OFCC will only fund buildings with more than 700 students, Rowell said that larger buildings are more efficient.

“The OFCC would say if you have 750 students, you should have one building,” he said. “Larger buildings are easier to afford and to program.”

In response to reports that the district seeks new buildings to accommodate its new learning model of project-based learning, or PBL, Superintendent Mario Basora said those reports aren’t accurate.

“We’re not basing our buildings on the PBL pedagogy,” he said. However, he said, the school would benefit from classrooms that offer more varied options. “I would love to see classrooms that could be more flexible.”

Currently, the buildings largely accomodate traditionally sized classrooms, and it’s a challenge to find space for either larger or smaller groups of students, according to Conn. For instance, he said, because orchestra and band students don’t have practice rooms, small ensembles have to practice in the hall outside the music room, a situation that disturbs other teachers and students.

What is OFCC?

The first step in partnering with a school district in a construction project is assessing the district’s buildings, according to Rowell of the OFCC. In each district, the OFCC uses regional consulting firms to assess the condition of current school buildings. In Yellow Springs, the state agency contracted with Thomas Porter Architects of Toledo. Several firm employees spent about four hours combined at both YSHS/McKinney and Mills Lawn to complete the assessment, Rowell said in an interview last week.

According to architect Julie Apt of the Thomas Porter firm on Monday, their employees are not permitted to anwer questions regarding the assessment process.

The OFCC was created in 2012 from a proposal by Governor Kasich to merge the Ohio School Facilities Commission, or OSFC, and the Office of the State Architect. The commission consists of the director of the Office of the Budget and Management, the director of the Department of Administrative Services and a member appointed by Kasich.

While the OFCC offers both new construction and building rehabilitation to school districts, it tilts toward new construction. The agency’s work is about 70 percent new construction and 30 percent renovation, according to OFCC spokesperson Rick Savors in an interview last week.

However, its actual projects indicate a larger percentage going for new construction. In its more recent round of funding in January 2017, the projects — in Dover City, Sandusky, Elyria and Winton Woods — will result in nine new school buildings and one renovated building. A similar breakdown is evident in funding for 2016.

The tilt toward new construction is partially explained by the agency’s “two-thirds rule,” that is, if renovation costs are estimated at more than 66 percent of the cost of new construction, the agency recommends building new. And in fact, it will not offer state subsidies if the district opts instead for renovation, unless the district receives a waiver.

The agency will not fund renovation if replacement has been recommended because it views the decision as fiscally unwise, Rowell said last week.

In an email this week, Superintendent Basora said there are several reasons to choose the OFCC for the building project.

“Because they don’t stand to profit at all from a facilities evaluation, they are an unbiased state agency without any real stake in Yellow Springs,” he wrote. Secondly, “They are the foremost experts on school design and public building construction in the state of Ohio.”

Wealthier districts do not always follow OFCC recommendations, according to consultant Howard Fleeter in an August 2016 “OFCC Factsheet” report.

“Some districts feel that the [OFCC] construction and building standards are overly rigid. Thus, it is not uncommon for wealthier school districts, for whom the state share of facilities projects districts is relatively low, to decline to participate in the Classroom Facilities Assistance Program,” he stated. 

Some critics question the OFCC for its “two-thirds rule,” and a perceived bias toward new construction.

“There is no basis for this rule,” Royce Yeater of the National Trust for Historic Preservation wrote in the article “Saving Ohio Schools,” on the website renovateohioschools.wordpress.com. “It seems to stem from the false assumption that older schools are somehow too “worn out” so that continued investment above a certain level is unwise. Such standards exist in several states, but the percentage varies from as low as 50 percent to as high as 90 percent, proving the arbitrariness of the standard.”

Yeater also criticizes the OFCC for inflating renovation costs and using standards that discriminate against older schools, such as acreage standards that require elementary schools to locate facilities on at least seven acres, or one acre for each 100 students, an area that forces the replacement of older schools built in neighborhoods. The acreage standards, and most other standards cited by the OFCC in its assessments, come from the Ohio School Design Manual, or OSDM. The OSDM was written by the OFCC.

While the OFCC has written the design manual of standards it uses as reference, it has done so objectively, according to OFCC spokesperson Savors.

“We pride ourselves in trying to be as objective as possible,” he said last week.

The first goal of the OFCC is to provide better facilities that meet the educational needs of children, he said. However, a secondary result of the construction process is economic development.

“You go into a district and bring a major construction project, and you’re going to have economic stimulation,” he said, adding that $1 spent on construction will bring $7 in additional dollars to a community.

The News will look more in-depth at the condition of facilities in upcoming papers.

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Meeting eyes Yellow Springs Schools facilities

by Diane Chiddister