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New Yellow Springs school buildings under consideration

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Last week, the Yellow Springs Combined School District hosted its second community forum designed to update residents on the plans for new school buildings and to gauge public feedback on the project.

Attendees were presented with three options for new school buildings and the estimated costs of their construction. According to Mike Ruetschle, a Dayton architect working with the district on the facilities project, feedback gathered at the previous forum in March indicated public interest in a combined a K–12 facility. Much of last week’s meeting was dedicated to discussing the option of putting this facility on the current Mills Lawn campus. District officials outlined plans for getting a levy funding construction on the ballot in May 2018.

Approximately 50 people were in attendance on Thursday evening, including parents, residents and district staff. A question-and-answer session was scheduled for the end of the forum, but attendees asked questions throughout. Of particular concern were traffic and parking associated with the new schools, and the cost of construction.

Sentiment at the meeting was mixed, with some attendees responding favorably to the possibilities inherent in new facilities, while others were concerned by the cost and what some characterized as a relative lack of community input.

Building new facilities?
The district aims to renovate current buildings or build new facilities as part of its strategic 2020 plan. The district began exploring construction options last fall, which include renovating the current buildings or building entirely new facilities. Dayton firm Ruetschle Architects was hired in February to assess buildings options and develop initial concepts for the properties, and to lead a series of community engagement forums discussing the project. The firm has also hosted two similar forums with a group of invited village residents, business owners and district staff.

According to District Superintendent Mario Basora, the district’s goal is to have a building plan selected by the fall of this year and a levy on the ballot in May 2018 that would fund construction. Should the levy pass, the design phase would run from summer 2018 through summer 2019, with construction to be completed by winter break of 2021. Basora has stated in the past that moving forward on the project is contingent on community support, and if the public is not in favor of new buildings, then the district will not pursue the levy.

Half of the attendees at last week’s meeting had not attended the previous forum. Basora opened the meeting with an overview as to why he and the school board are interested in new facilities.

The current buildings are too small for the current population of 754 students and are in generally bad condition, he said, which will cost the district significant money to repair. He listed new boiler room doors, a new gym floor and updated infrastructure as imminent repairs, as well as a new roof for the entirety of Mills Lawn Elementary, which the district was told will cost $2 million.

Additionally, he said, the current buildings do not facilitate the district’s project-based learning, or PBL, approach to education. They do not have open common areas conducive to group work, he said, and the facilities are not equipped to handle the multi-disciplinary projects undertaken as part of a PBL curriculum. The new buildings would feature open classrooms and shared learning spaces, for example, and could be designed to include facilities for use by villagers as well as students, such as a public performance space and a community kitchen, although these would come at an additional cost.

Potential building options, costs
At the first community forum in March, attended by 75 people, villagers were presented with six potential options for new school buildings. At last week’s meeting, the options were narrowed to three, which architect Mike Ruetschle said represent the favored choices from the previous meeting. According to public feedback, the majority of respondents favored a combined K–12 building, he said, and noted that recent staff surveys indicated 80 percent of staff members are interested in a K–12 facility. The results of the survey will be posted this week on the district’s website.

Two of the three building options presented at last week’s meeting were combined K–12 facilities. One option called for demolishing parts of the current high school and adding new buildings to create a K–12 facility on the YSHS campus. The second would do the same on the Mills Lawn property. The third option, the rehabilitation of the Mills Lawn facility and the complete overhaul of the YSHS campus, including a new high school and auditorium, was “kept on the table for comparison purposes,” Ruetschle said, an example of maintaining two separate facilities at their respective locations.

According to information presented at last week’s meeting, the current options are estimated to cost $26.5 million for overhauling the current buildings or $32 million for entirely new facilities. The project would require either an 11 mills or 13.2 mills levy, which respectively amounts to $380 or $490 annually per $100,000 of property value over 35 years, or $760–$980 per $200,000. These figures do not include options such as the performance space, which would require additional funding. The future facilities are being designed to accommodate 800 students, Basora said, though the district is awaiting the results of an enrollment study to get a more precise idea of future student numbers.

An audible murmur went through the crowd when Ruetschle discussed the estimated cost of the projects and the length of the bond. However, some of the costs would be offset by a credit from the State’s Expedited Local Partnership Program, Ruetschle explained, which would pay for approximately 17 percent of the project, or between $4 and $4.5 million.

The project could also be undertaken in two steps, Basora said, with the passage of a levy funding the elementary school building and later a levy funding the new high school building.

There is also the possibility of selling land owned by the district, Ruetschle said, such as a nine-acre plot on the YSHS grounds that could be marked for sale and parceled out for residential development.

A combined K–12 building
The bulk of the evening was given to discussing a K–12 building on the Mills Lawn property, which Ruetschle deemed the most popular option based on public comments from the previous forum.

According to plans presented at last Thursday’s meeting, the updated Mills Lawn campus would feature two separate facilities: a new elementary school, which would be oriented in the same direction as the current Mills Lawn building but would include a parking lot and driveway opening onto Walnut Street, and a middle/high school building with a driveway and parking lot opening onto Elm Street. The drawing showed a common area in the middle of the property and a playground on the northeast corner. Students would use a new gym built on the property, but the district would maintain the gym and track at the current high school as the district’s “competitive facilities,” Ruetschle said.

Basora characterized the response to proposed K–12 facility as “mostly positive,” based on the forums and staff response.

“Generally people see a need and preference for a K–12 plan on one campus,” he said this week. “As to where [that will be located] is a question we still need to answer.”

Villager questions and concerns
Following the presentation, the attendees broke into small groups to discuss the different options. As in the previous meeting, a representative from each group addressed the crowd with their comments and concerns.

The cost of the project was worrisome to many attendees. Villager Kathy Adams said that the average property value in Yellow Springs is likely more than $200,000, meaning that the average resident would pay close to an additional $1,000 in property taxes every year. Around 1,500 of the village’s 3,500 residents rent or own property, she said, meaning that these 1,500 properties would fund the bulk of construction. Villager Richard Zopf noted that the district accommodates many open enrollment students, who come from areas not paying property taxes to Yellow Springs. Open enrollment students currently comprise 25 percent of the student body, Basora said.

For some residents, repairing the current buildings seemed to be a more financially feasible option.

“A $200,000 roof is a lot cheaper than brand new buildings,” said villager Dale Hotaling, referring to figure cited for the portion of the Mills Lawn roof requiring immediate repairs.

Responding to a question about the cost and scope of renovation, Basora said details are not yet available. The district is waiting for a report from the Ohio Facilities Commission, he said, which recently inspected local school facilities and will provide the district with a better understanding of what repairs may be needed. But Basora cautioned that piecemeal renovations, such as all new windows, are “cosmetic” and don’t necessarily repair the parts of the buildings that can’t be seen.

“Imagine 400 kids using the facilities every day for 70 years,” he said this week. “What’s going on in the parts of the building that you can’t see? Putting money into a band-aid, short-term solution is not a sustainable approach.”

Residents such as Shirley Kristensen were concerned about the increased traffic and congestion that would come with locating both schools at Mills Lawn.

“Downtown has parking Monday through Friday, but what happens if there is a high school in the center of town?” she asked, also citing concerns that teenagers would drive recklessly through residential streets. Ruetschle said that the buildings plans are preliminary and haven’t yet explored how to accommodate the increased downtown traffic. He also acknowledged that the new plan would have 148 parking spaces, versus the 190 spaces on the current properties.

“Managing traffic shouldn’t be our driving motivation but rather what [option] is the most efficient and inexpensive site to run,” said school board President Aïda Merhemic, noting that there are “ways to manage traffic that haven’t been explored yet.”

Other residents were concerned about the loss of green space in the village, and, according to Nick Eastman, changes in the culture of the village because of more activity in its center. Becca Eastman, a science teacher at McKinney Middle School, wondered if more buildings on the Mills Lawn property would limit space for outdoor education. Other villagers raised questions about the cost of maintaining the current high school’s gymnasium even though the new buildings would have their own gym.

Villager Sheila Dunphy was at the meeting and said this week that she doesn’t have children in the school and is assessing the project in terms of what it means for local homeowners and the village as a whole.

“Good schools are important to any town,” she said. “[The facilities] project is a big undertaking, and I want to make sure it’s done right.” So far, she said, she feels that the district has done a good job about answering questions and explaining the process.

Future facilities meetings
Some villagers expressed concern that attendance at the forums was insufficient to gauge community sentiment on a project of such magnitude. Basora said that two more facilities meetings are planned for the fall, the first likely to be in September, to continue to develop plans and get feedback. Many more “granular details,” such as building design and amenities, will emerge as the district gets a clearer sense of what the community is interested in, he said.

Basora said that the board is hoping to decide on a building plan by December of this year in order to have a levy on the ballot in May 2018. However, the “board wants to know all opinions and options before making a decision,” Basora said this week, and if a consensus can’t be reached on how to move forward with the project, the decision could be postponed until spring 2018 with the intention of putting the levy up for a vote in the fall of 2018.
“Board members are deeply committed to the community and democratic values,” Basora said. “They want to listen to the residents of Yellow Springs and Miami Township.”

More information about the facilities plans, including maps, estimated costs, levy information and the presentations from previous community forums can be found at

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