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School facilities question— One town builds, one does not

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In the past 10 or so years, every school district in Greene County, except Yellow Springs, has either already built new school buildings or passed a levy to do so soon. The same is true for each district contiguous to the Yellow Springs schools. New schools have been built in Cedarville, Beavercreek and Xenia, while Fairborn and Greenon recently passed levies to fund new buildings. 

To District Superintendent Mario Basora, this building trend puts Yellow Springs at a disadvantage.

“Our village wants more young families to move into town to ensure our long-term vibrancy as a community,” he wrote in a recent email. “When young families are looking where to live and send their children to school in the Dayton/Miami Valley area, they certainly consider the opportunities, amenities and educational value of the actual physical buildings schools are located in.” 

“Show me that a new school
raises students’ grades. Demonstrate that new buildings provide better
learning opportunities that
translate into better grades.”

—Frank Quinn,
Director of preservation, Heritage Ohio

He continued, “Since Fairborn and Greenon recently passed building levies, our district will soon have the physical buildings with the least amount of educational supports in all of Greene County and of any that are contiguous to Yellow Springs.”

The building of new schools in the county reflects a state-wide push to update school facilities. This extensive effort by the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission, or OFCC, has resulted in 1,143 new or renovated school buildings in Ohio since 1997, with many more planned, according to the June 2017 issue of Ohio School Board Association Journal. 

This spring, Yellow Springs school leaders began floating the possibility of replacing local school facilities. After the board invited the OFCC to town for a buildings assessment, the agency recommended that both Yellow Springs High School/McKinney Middle School and Mills Lawn School be replaced, at an estimated cost of $31 mllion.

School leaders emphasize that a decision on whether or not to rebuild school facilities has not yet been made. This Saturday, the school district is holding its third Community Pulse event this summer (see sidebar), and the fifth event since the spring that seeks to engage villagers in sharing information and making a decision. School leaders have said the school board needs to make a decision by the end of the year.

Should the district choose to rebuild, leaders have suggested a levy of 12.7 mills to 13.2 mills. A 12.7 mills levy would mean a property tax hike of more than $450 yearly per $100,000 of property value, or around $900 for an average $200,000 home. A 35-year, 5 percent 12.8 mills levy means villagers would pay about $27 million in interest, plus $31 million for the project, for a total of $58 million, according to figures provided by Greene County Auditor David Graham.

One town builds, one does not

While many area school districts have chosen to rebuild facilities, rebuilding in Yellow Springs would mean something significantly different than in other Greene County communities. All other Greene County districts have received about 50 percent of funding or higher from the state for their rebuilding projects — in the Greenon district, for example, the state will pay $18 million of the $36 million project, so that homeowners of a $100,000 property will pay $240 year.

“What we’re looking for is for
every student to have adequate facilities for education.”

—Rick savors,
Spokesperson, Ohio Facilities
Construction Commission

But because Yellow Springs is a wealthier district, the state’s share would be smaller and the town’s share much larger. According to the OFCC, Yellow Springs would receive at most about 17 percent state funding, and those funds would be delayed for several years.

The OFCC school facilities effort began 20 years ago in the poorest of the state’s 610 school districts, and the agency is working its way up to the wealthiest. In the poorest communities, the state has paid up to 95 percent of the cost of rebuilding schools. 

Not surprisingly, given that the state is offering to fund much of the project, most districts visited by the OFCC have so far chosen to rebuild, according to OFCC spokesperson Rick Savors in an interview last week. After the OFCC makes a recommendation to rebuild, the district has most often put a levy on the ballot for the community share.

“Not all the communities have passed their levies, but a whole bunch have,” Savors said. “If the district is receiving 95 percent of the funding from the state, the voters are usually willing to pass the levy.”

One local district that supported the OFCC recommendation to build new is Cedarcliff, which combines Cedarville and Clifton. The district replaced its original building, constructed in 1917, and renovated four times since, with a new K-12 building in 2013.

The robust amount of state funding for the project likely helped ensure that the district’s levy passed, according to Cedarcliff Superintendent Chad Mason this week. The state kicked in 52 percent of the $25 million project. 

“I would say it had to have an effect,” he said of the state funding. “There’s the feeling, if you don’t take advantage of the funding help now, you might have to pay the whole thing later.”

The project has been a boon to the district in many ways, according to Mason, who is in his fifth year as the school’s leader.

The new building provides better educational opportunities for students, he believes, including science labs better equipped for experiments and classrooms wired for technology.

“In this day and age, you have to provide kids with what they need,” he said.

Teachers notice a difference in student focus in August and September, hot-weather months during which students in the old building, which lacked air-conditioning, just had to put up with the heat.

“It makes a big difference in everyone’s learning,” he said. 

 The new building also sends a critical message to both current and potential students, Mason believes.

“New buildings aren’t the end-all, but they matter greatly,” he said, citing increased numbers of open enrollment students to the district. “It sends a message to kids about how much you value education.”

Mason doesn’t claim that the new building has improved students’ academic performance, since Cedarcliff students performed well before the rebuilding, and test scores haven’t changed. But he believes the building has made an impact on students.

“You don’t see test scores going up, but you see more opportunities for students,” he said.

But citizens in Germantown, which with its neighbor Farmersville makes up the Valley View school district, located in Montgomery County, had a different response to an OFCC recommendation to rebuild its schools. In May, the Valley View district voted down a 5.48 mill, 38-year levy that would have raised $27.5 million for its share of the rebuilding of four new schools, with the state kicking in more than half of the funding.

But even that amount of state funding didn’t convince taxpayers to support the levy, according to parent Lucy Gilbert, who said some of the opposition to the project came from the nature of the Germantown community.

“This is a conservative community with a German heritage,” she said. “People are very careful with money and have an attitude of not wanting to waste things.”

Following the OFCC assessment that recommended the replacement of the four schools, the levy was first placed on the ballot in 2008, then in the fall of 2016. Both times it went down, but the same levy was placed on the ballot again, this spring. It once again failed.

Some of the opposition to the project grew from dismay at a lack of community involvement in the process, according to Gilbert. The school board held only one public meeting and many felt the board used scare tactics and misinformation. Community members organized an informational meeting a month before the vote, and about 100 people showed up.

A perceived sense of the project as unnecessarily tearing down adequate buildings also drew community opposition, according to parent Lori Dima, whose family works in renovating old factories. 

“What the OFCC is doing is totally wasteful,” she said. 

Project opponents looked closely at the OFCC assessment of the buildings, and found much to argue with. For instance, they identified examples of what they perceived as inflated costs for renovation, with criteria deemed too rigid. For instance, the OFCC guidelines state that HVAC systems more than 10 years old must be replaced, as must electrical systems more than 35 years old. The OFCC also cited $3,800 as the cost of a single new toilet, and $342,000 as the cost of upgrading the playground at Farmersville Junior High.

“When the state talks of renovating, they’re talking about renovating so that a building is like new, not renovating to what is necessary,” Gilbert said.

Levy opponents also found past building assessments that called into question some of the OFCC conclusions. While all agree that the buildings need improvements, levy opponents felt that the OFCC’s recommended solution, to rebuild the buildings from scratch, was unnecessary.

“We didn’t feel tearing down perfectly good buildings was the right thing to do,” Dima said.

Opponents also questioned the 38-year span of the levy, which required that the community raise about $21 million in interest.

Since the levy went down for the third time in May, the school district has agreed to hire two independent architectural teams to re-assess the school buildings, a step that levy opponents fully support. They hope that all can come together to identify the best outcome for the community’s schools.

According to Gilbert, the group’s activism was a valuable lesson to their children.

“We were showing the kids, people spoke up because that’s what you do,” she said. “Then there’s a compromise and then you go on.”

Rebuild vs. remodel

While the OFCC presents its work as improving school facilities through either rebuilding or remodeling, most of the work is rebuilding. After assessing the buildings, the agency recommends rebuilding about 65 to 70 percent of the time, according to OFCC Planner Glenn Rowell in a recent interview.  However, an analysis by the News of  OFCC projects in 2015 and 2016 indicates a higher percentage of rebuilding.

In Yellow Springs, the OFCC assessment recommended rebuilding both Mills Lawn and Yellow Springs High School/McKinney School because the assessment estimated the cost of remodeling for each building as more than two-thirds the cost of rebuilding, which is the state’s standard for recommending rebuilding. In Yellow Springs, the projected remodeling cost was almost as expensive as rebuilding.

If a school district chooses to remodel rather than rebuild after the OFCC recommends rebuilding, it has every right to do so, according to Savors of the OFCC. However, it would likely need to do so without state funding. Because the OFCC has deemed rebuilding the most cost efficient way to improve the facility, it most often does not help to fund remodeling, except in cases when the agency approves a waiver that allows funding for remodeling. But Yellow Springs would be unlikely to get a waiver, Rowell said.

As someone who has great respect for the capacity of old buildings to serve new purposes, Frank Quinn, the director of preservation for Heritage Ohio, has been a longtime critic of the OFCC.

Especially, he is critical of the OFCC’s bias toward building new buildings over renovating the old.

“This has played out across the state many times over the years,” he said in a recent interview. After the agency assesses school buildings, according to Quinn, “It always comes out that it’s a better deal to build new.”

What Quinn perceives as the OFCC’s strong bias toward building new begins with the assessment of school buildings. The OFCC contracts with architectural and engineering firms to perform the assessment, but he believes those firms are often ones with expertise in building new rather than with renovating old buildings.

“You have the wrong people doing the assessments,” he said.

The agency’s apparent bias toward building new is also reflected in its two-thirds rule, in which the OFCC recommends rebuilding over renovation if the cost of renovation is estimated to be two-thirds or above the cost of rebuilding, he believes. There’s no basis for that rule, according to Quinn, and some states use formulas with a higher percent required for building new.

While Quinn said he doesn’t know for sure why the OFCC so often advocates building new over renovation, he suspects it’s a matter of expediency.

“The cynic in me says it’s throwing money at a problem, putting out the narrative that new is better, that makes it easier to sell the project.”

Quinn also disagrees with what he perceives as the OFCC’s assertion that new buildings enhance educational performance in  children. 

“Show me that a new school raises students’ grades,” he said. “Demonstrate that new buildings provide better learning opportunities that translate into better grades.”

According to Quinn, he hasn’t seen that evidence. In fact, schools consistently at the top of the annual U.S. News and World Report’s list of excellent schools in Ohio include towns that have preserved their old schools, such as Oakwood and the Columbus suburb of Bexley.

“If it’s true that you can only produce great scholars with new schools, you can bet the folks of Bexley would be lining up to get a new school,” he said.

But the OFCC does believe that new schools contribute to helping students learn better, according to spokesperson Savors in a recent interview. 

“What we’re looking for is for every student to have adequate facilities for education,” he said. 

While Savors said he’s not aware of research that indicates new schools enhance student learning, he maintains that better facilities cut down on distractions that can take away from student achievement.

“You don’t have to worry about moving buckets around if the roof leaks,” he said. “You’re taking that factor out of the mix. At a minimum you’re providing a space that’s warm, safe and dry.”

Along with improving education opportunities, the OFCC boosts the local economy of communities where it takes on a project, according to Savors.

“Every dollar you spend on construction spins off into $7 spent on other parts of the economy,” he said. “You’re going to have some major economic stimulation.”

Savors did not agree with Quinn’s assertion that the OFCC has a bias toward new construction. 

“I don’t believe we have a bias,” he said. “Our goal is to approach each situation with an open mind.”

In future articles, the News will look at the OFCC assessments of local schools.


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