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‘Community Pulse’ meeting— YS school facilities discussed

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About 50 villagers heard from a panel of eight Yellow Springs School district teachers and shared their ideas, questions and concerns on the future of the district’s school buildings Tuesday, July 11, at Mills Lawn School. The event was the second of three summer “Community Pulse” meetings hosted by the Board of Education.

Board member Steve Conn served as facilitator, as he did in the first pulse meeting in June, which focused on the condition of the public school buildings as assessed by the Ohio Facility Construction Commission, or OFCC. He said the teachers were present at the second gathering “to talk about what it’s like to teach in these buildings,” but the main purpose of the series of meetings is to provide a public forum for community discussion.

While most of the teachers spoke about how the aging facilities negatively affected classroom instruction and student learning, a number of villagers seemed unconvinced that the costly course of action outlined by the OFCC is immediately necessary to correct problems identified in the structures.

Longtime high school history teacher John Day likened the current state of the buildings to a 20-year-old car that still runs. “When you go in the high school, it feels patched and rundown,” but it functions. “If I have four walls and heat and the Internet, I can teach in that classroom. It’s not critical. But I think we do have to envision what we will do next.”

The state agency, which has recommended replacing both the YSHS/McKinney and Mills Lawn buildings, puts the cost of renovating YSHS/McKinney at $15 million and building new at $17 million, with Mills Lawn’s costs estimated at $10.02 million for repair and $10.04 million for replacement.

Replacement sounded like an extreme action to local parent Chad Runyon, especially in regards to Mills Lawn. “I like this school,” he said following a tour of the elementary facility. “This feels like a pretty solid building to me.”

Julie Ford, who is a parent of an alum, also questioned the need to build something completely new. “It seems it doesn’t have to be all or nothing,” she said. “We don’t necessarily have to do it all from scratch.”

Her concern was with the cost and the accompanying tax increase that a construction project would bring. “I want every teacher who works in this district to be able to live here,” she said. “Find other ways to be cost effective, like doing things in phases and stages.”

At issue in terms of extending the work over time is that the state could possibly pay about 17 percent of the final costs if the district follows the OFCC’s recommendations to replace. If the estimated costs of identified repair needs hold true, then replacing the facilities would cost less than renovation with state money added to the equation. However, the state subsidy likely would not come into the district coffers until a couple of years after the project’s completion, and the amount is not guaranteed, according to Glenn Rowell of the OFCC, who spoke to the News in June. There are possible waivers involved in proceeding with repairs instead of replacement, but the OFCC representative said waivers are unlikely.

Teachers talk

The panel of teachers pointed to a variety of facility issues during the July 11 meeting in the Mills Lawn library. They said the problems they encounter are more than a matter of comfort and aesthetics (which play roles in learning engagement and receptivity), they also affect instructional effectiveness, student behavior and safety.

John Gudgel, longtime former principal at the high school and current counselor at Mills Lawn, said changes in classroom practices — “the pedagogy of how we teach now” — make the buildings that were constructed in the 1950s and ‘60s for traditional models of instruction less accommodating today.

Peg Morgan, who teaches third grade, elaborated, noting that current teaching methods include a variety of student groupings and hands-on experiences that take into account children’s individual development and needs.

“We want to make sure all these different learners are accommodated,” she said. “Space is critical. As much as we talk about student curriculum and teaching methods, we talk about space.”

Flexible spaces are needed so that groups and individuals can work without distracting each other, she said.

The Mills Lawn library is an example of a space where different activities occur at the same time, said Eli Hurwitz, the district’s media/library specialist.

“This is also a hallway,” he said, explaining that it is the route sixth-graders take to get to their classrooms on the opposite side of the library area. “Just imagine, if I have a class in here, and sixth-graders are coming in from lunch.”

“I teach in a trailer,” said seventh-grade English teacher Jaime Adoff. The McKinney Middle School wing of the upper school is a “double-wide” added as a temporary measure in 1988, according to school leaders. Former Principal Gudgel said the life span had been expected to be no more than 10 years.

There are safety and behavioral issues  associated with the narrow width of the McKinney addition, nicknamed the “shoebox,” Adoff said. “If I open the door without looking, I could take out half-a-dozen seventh-graders.”

As the band teacher at both the lower and upper schools, Brian Mayer, who like Adoff and Gudgel went through the local school system as a student, said the instrumental  music accommodations are strikingly different at the two schools.

“When I was a student here [at Mills Lawn], our band program was across the street in the church. Orchestra was in the gym. Now, I’m out in the mobile unit,” he said of the trailer in the parking lot behind the school building.

“It’s a low-ceiling box for 40,” he said. “The room out there leaks, and the temperature controls don’t work well.” The humidity and extreme changes in temperature are also hard on the instruments. “It costs thousands of dollars in instrument repairs each year,” he said.

On the other hand, the McKinney/YSHS building has a room “made for music-making,” with no parallel walls. “The downside is that there’s not a lot of storage.”

Intervention specialist Donna Haller had no complaints. “I love my classroom,” she said. I have 10 or 11 students at a time. … It is really comfy and cozy for us.” But she recognized that others did not share her experience. “I know some classrooms are too hot or too cold.”

Board member Conn asked the teachers if students notice the structural deficiencies.

“There’s a lack of pride in the building,” said McKinney/YSHS school art teacher Elizabeth Simon, who reported hearing “comments about things being junky and broken down.” The issues range from “inconveniences to disruptions,” she said. “If there’s a bird in the classroom, or a bat in the classroom, or insects, or there’s a leak,” the students are affected. Other teachers agreed.

A community member wondered if the teachers are asked for a list of problems in their classrooms, and if there is an attempt to fix them.

“I’d say the more cosmetic things in our classroom get fixed,” Day responded.

But some issues run deeper than a quick fix, said school board member Anne Erickson. “Even if we repair, they’re not always effective repairs,” she said, citing an issue with leaks in the roof over Mills Lawn library. “This roof will be a continual ongoing repair,” because of its deterioration.

According to the OFCC assessment, the roof needs replacing. Cost to the district for the roof replacement work, said Superintendent Mario Basora, is estimated at $35,000–$40,000.

Facility needs

Other needs cited by Basora during a walk through of the school include parking lot repairs ($30,000–$40,000), the installation of air conditioning throughout the building ($1.3 million) and a new gym floor ($50,000), which has been deferred until the board decides how it wants to proceed.

The superintendent noted that some projects come with additional costs. Air conditioning, for example, also means new ceiling tiles and an upgraded electrical system.

The current library roof was put on as part of an expansion project in 2002 that increased the size of the gym and added several classrooms as well as the conference room where the school board meets. The main school structure was built in 1952, with an addition in 1957. The high school was built in 1963.

Gudgel recalled that in the early 1970s, the district had 1,100 students, and the village was projected to grow to 7,000 residents. The current school population is 754, about 30 percent of which is through open enrollment, according to school officials.

Given the size of the district, and the potential costs lying ahead, the possibility of constructing one new building to house all students has been proposed.

The teachers at the meeting seemed to favor the idea, or at the least see benefits in a K-12 campus.

Conn said that a survey of the entire teaching staff found “80 percent wanted to see a K-12 facility.” A villager countered, however, that the percentages in favor were closer to 40 percent at each school. “You got the 80 percent by adding the two different groups.”

Morgan said she answered the survey question based on “economic efficiency.”

“I wasn’t thinking about the benefits of proximity of younger and older kids. When I answered the question, it was an economics thing.”

As a teacher who splits his time between the two current buildings, Hurwitz said he would welcome a single district library. “The power of a K-12 library is a really powerful thing,” he said.

Adoff said that as Power of the Pen coach he had the opportunity this past school year to go into several K-12 schools where he talked to teachers about their experiences. “To a teacher, they liked it,” he said.

For his part, Day said that if the district does move forward with a combined building, he would like to see it at the Mills Lawn site, “close to where the community is.”

Community response

Several villagers in attendance had strong opposition, however, to a K-12 building taking the place of the elementary school.

“As a parent, I have really seen the value of this wonderful small school,” Julie Ford said. “It’s small, cozy, and it’s a very comfortable place for small children. It’s not overwhelming. I like that young children are at the center of our community.” She noted that even the youngest students ride bicycles to school, which they would be less able to do if they their school moved to the village’s edge.

“It’s also the only green space in the center of town,” she added. “This spot is a treasure. This beautiful downtown park is too special to lose.”

Other attenders also expressed concern about the potential loss of green space.

The Mills Lawn site has about 9–10 acres of land, while the YSHS/McKinney campus has 32–33 acres, according to district officials.

Architect Mike Ruetschle, who facilitated two public meetings in the spring during which attendees seemed to prefer the option of a K–12 building on the Mills Lawn location, said that “the footprint” of a likely two-story K–12 building would not encroach on the site’s current green space. And he responded to concerns about the parking needs of a larger workforce and greater numbers of visitors by noting that parking could be handled more efficiently than it currently is.

Still, villagers expressed doubts that the village infrastructure could handle the additional traffic around the Mills Lawn block.

Meeting attenders came with suggestions, too. Some ideas put forward included selling some of the district land to help pay for facility repairs; investigating the feasibility of existing structures, such as at Antioch College; and conducting a community-wide survey to gage wider public opinion.

Antioch University’s intention to sell the Midwest building at the corner of Dayton Street and East Enon Road was mentioned, but Conn said a representative of the university had approached the district with a $16 million to $16.5 million asking price. The facility also would need a major overhaul to meet district needs, as it has no cafeteria or gymnasium, Conn added.

Parent Runyon asked whether a re-evaluation of the district’s open enrollment policy might be warranted in light of the space issues expressed by many of the teachers.

Open enrollment students only fill spaces that already exist, Conn responded. For example, if a class with a limit of 20 students has 17 from the district, three open enrollment students can be admitted to fill out the class.

In a separate conversation, Superintendent Basora said that the open enrollment program, which makes up 30 percent of the student body, brings in about $1 million to the district, and accounts for a large percentage of the schools’ diversity.

The facilities decision-making process will continue into December, when the board plans to vote on whether to authorize a levy for the May ballot, Conn said. In addition to Board members Conn and Erickson, Board President Aïda Merhemic also attended the pulse meeting.

The next “Community Pulse” meeting is scheduled Saturday, Aug. 12, 10 a.m., at the McKinney School.

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