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Village Schools

School board meeting — $18.5 million plan discussed

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The Yellow Springs school district is considering an $18.5 million “hybrid” renovation/addition plan for McKinney Middle/Yellow Springs High School, while leaving facilities issues at Mills Lawn School for a second phase, potentially several years down the road. The school board discussed the plan at its Nov. 9 meeting, together with a second option, a $20.8 million proposal that would include a community performance space at the high school.

Superintendent Mario Basora and Dayton architect Mike Ruetschle, hired by the district to lead a community engagement process and develop concepts for new or renovated local schools, presented the options to generally positive feedback from school board members last Thursday. Most of the school board’s questions, and some concerns, centered on the added cost of the performance space.

At the meeting, Basora characterized the $18.5 million plan as the option he was “leaning toward.”

Basora told board members that he was seeking their input in advance of making a formal recommendation to the board at its December regular meeting. District leaders have previously said board members might vote on a recommendation at that point, with a levy for the project appearing on the May 2018 ballot.

District leaders do not plan to organize a public forum on the new options before the board vote, according to a follow-up email from Board President Aïda Merhemic, who noted that the district had already provided “more community-oriented meetings than originally planned.” 

Included in Basora’s presentation were results from the district’s recent telephone survey of local voters. In that survey, respondents resoundingly rejected a proposal for a $34 million combined K–12 school at Mills Lawn, a plan previously floated by the district. However, a solid majority of respondents expressed support for an $18 million renovation/addition at McKinney Middle/YSHS, an option similar to the one now being considered.

The facilities discussion, including new options and survey results, was one of two presentations given by Basora at the recent school board meeting. The other presentation focused on local schools’ performance on the state report card, released by the Ohio Department of Education in mid-September. 

That discussion, as well as other items from the Nov. 9 board meeting, will be reported in next week’s News.

$18.5 million option

The bulk of the Nov. 9 meeting focused on two school facilities options to address what district leaders say are a variety of infrastructure problems and pedagogical limitations with the school district’s existing buildings. Both options are detailed in the Nov. 9 facilities presentation available at ysschools.org under the Yellow Springs Facilities Plan tab.

The main option now under consideration is an $18.5 million proposal to demolish and rebuild portions of McKinney Middle/YSHS and renovate and repurpose other portions. 

The plan would be funded by a combination of income and property tax. That includes a 0.25 percent rise in income tax, and an increase in property tax of about $173.36 yearly per $100,000 in home value, or about $346.72 annually for an average village home valued at $200,000, according to figures provided by the district.

Under the proposal, three structures would be torn down and replaced: the high school’s three-story academic core, part of the original 1963 construction; the band room, also built in 1963; and the 1988 McKinney addition, intended as a temporary structure. Two structures would be renovated: the one-story portion of the original high school building, including the administrative offices and gym and locker rooms, and the 2002 addition at the back of the high school, currently used for science labs.

In place of the demolished structures, the plan calls for constructing a one-story, 48,400-square-foot academic core that would serve both middle and high school students, grades 7–12. Situated where the McKinney addition is now but extending beyond it, the new core would have a layout that would allow for more flexible use of space to accommodate group work and collaboration, according to Basora.

Specifically, the design concept, prepared by Ruetschle Architects, shows three nodes or wings, one for middle school students and two for high school students, each consisting of clustered classrooms, small group rooms and common spaces designated as “extended learning areas.” A student dining area and media center are also included in the design, as these areas are currently part of the three-story building slated for demolition.

Not PBL-specific

The new concept is not designed specifically for project-based learning, or PBL, the district’s current curriculum, though it would accommodate that approach better than the existing buildings, according to Basora. 

“This design is not for PBL,” he said.

Instead, the space has numerous features, including common space and classrooms of different disciplines clustered together, that reflect what district leaders consider important elements of the future of education: collaboration, group work, creativity and the use of research to solve complex problems.

The design is intended to be lasting and “truly transformational,” according to Basora.

But while the proposed addition emphasizes flexibility, it is not an “open classroom” concept, he stated. Classrooms would have doors and be separated by accordion walls or garage door-style walls, and there would be glass at the back and front, allowing for greater “permeability” to common spaces and the outdoors.

“The key here is flexible use of space,” he said. “We’re not talking about open classrooms.”

Merhemic said the plan reflects what she has seen at schools such as High Tech High, a public charter school in San Diego that uses its own model of PBL.

“It seems like a no-brainer to me,” she said of the more flexible design.

In addition to the new 7–12 academic core, the design calls for a new band room, entrance and administrative annex built out from the retained portion of the 1963 building. Renovations, and some repurposing of space, are proposed for that building and the 2002 addition.

The overall plan encompasses 89,575 square feet, including the new addition and the renovated portions, or about 20 percent more than the existing 74,229 square feet of the combined middle and high school. 

Despite the increase in size, the plan is not geared toward accommodating more students, according to Basora. The district currently has a total enrollment of about 750 students, including about 380 at the middle/high school. Enrollment is not expected to grow over the next 10 years, according to projections from the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission, or OFCC, the state agency hired by the local district to assess the condition of Yellow Springs schools.

Board members expressed support for the plan. Vice President Sean Creighton said he was pleased that the current proposal, while smaller in scope than comprehensive rebuilding options previously discussed, reflected in its creative design the “fearless thinking” of the earlier options.

The new plan is the latest development in a months-long facilities planning process that included five public forums between March and August. District leaders presented three main options at those forums: one that would preserve separate K–6 and 7–12 facilities at their existing locations, one that would locate a combined K–12 facility at Mills Lawn School and one that would locate a K–12 facility at the high school campus. Various combinations of new construction and renovation were considered for each, according to Basora.

The options currently under consideration reflect community feedback, he said.

$20.8 million option

Basora also presented a second option, which would add a $2.3 million community performance space to the design described above, for a total project cost of $20.8 million. Specifically, the plan calls for the construction of a 300-seat black box theater “shell” that would likely require at least $1 million in additional private donations to become fully operational.

This option would be funded by a 0.25 percent rise in income tax, together with a $205 yearly increase in property tax per $100,000 of home value, or $410 annually for an average village home.

The performance space would serve both the schools and community, meeting a longstanding need among both groups, according to Basora. But he expressed concern that the added cost could erode voters’ support for the larger renovation/addition plan at the high school, should such an option go on the ballot.

“This will not increase the amount of voters” who support the schools’ plan, he said.

Merhemic observed that while community members, herself included, had long advocated for a community performance space, “a stronger voice around affordability” seemed to argue against the incorporation of such a plan at this point.

However, board member Steve Conn worried that the importance of music, theater and dance in the schools and community would be undercut by a continued lack of such a space.

“That’s what nags at me,” he said.

And board member Sylvia Ellison expressed ambivalence about pursuing the project while putting Mills Lawn renovations on hold.

“Why do an extra piece when we’re not doing anything for MLS?” she asked.

According to architect Mike Ruetschle, the theater could be incorporated as a future element in the proposed renovation/addition, without being built right away. 

Board members said they planned to gather more input from members of the local performing arts community regarding the plan.

Survey results

Also at the Nov. 9 meeting, Basora presented results from the district’s recent telephone survey, conducted this fall by Wright State University’s Applied Policy Research Institute, or APRI, at a cost of about $9,600 to the district. 

A total of 339 local residents were interviewed. The survey targeted registered voters likely to vote in May elections, a population “not generalizable to all households in the school district,” the final report states. According to demographic information provided in the report, 70 percent of respondents were 55 years and older, and just 15 percent had school-aged children living at home. Eighty-eight percent of survey respondents were white, and 81.9 percent of respondents owned their home. The final report is available online at ysschools.org under the YS Facilities Plan tab.

Chief among the survey findings is a strong community preference to maintain separate facilities for elementary and middle/high school students, with 82.5 percent of respondents favoring this approach. Similarly, 81.9 percent of respondents were against the construction of a K–12 facility at Mills Lawn specifically (60.1 percent were “definitely against,” and 21.8 percent were “probably against”).

Creighton noted that in a district survey of teachers and staff this spring, about 80 percent actually favored the combined K–12 option, in contrast to the community’s opposite preference.

The district’s proposal to build a $34 million combined facility, without a location specified in the community survey, met high levels of opposition, with 77.2 percent against the idea (51.2 percent were “definitely against,” and 26 percent were “probably against”).

But survey respondents were far more receptive to a $18 million facility plan addressing the middle/high school as phase one of two, with 64.2 percent for the idea (15 percent were “definitely for,” and 49.2 percent were “probably for”). And more broadly, 84.6 percent of respondents were in favor of a two-phase renovation/addition plan (35.3 percent were “definitely for,” and 49.3 percent were “probably for”).

However, the final report notes that “many respondents also expressed concerns regarding the cost of the renovations/additions addressing the middle and high school facilities, citing taxes that are already too high in Yellow Springs.” Household income was a factor in people’s support for this option. According to the report, respondents living in households with incomes below $50,000 per year, 36.1 percent of survey participants, were “significantly less likely” to support the $18 million facility plan than those with higher incomes.

A question about including a performing arts center for school and community use in this option did not yield a useful result because of an initial discrepancy in the wording of the question, according to Basora.

And finally, the survey showed that respondents favored funding school facilities through a combination of income and property tax rather than either alone, with 64.1 percent indicating this option.

While Creighton said the results “reinforced what we were hearing,” board member Anne Erickson expressed “extreme disappointment” with the survey, which she called “poorly put together and worded.” Board members had previously voiced mixed views about the need for a survey.

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School board meeting — $18.5 million plan discussed

by Audrey Hackett