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Board of Education— Meeting focuses on facilities

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The Yellow Springs Board of Education met in a work session on Wednesday, Sept. 13, to take stock of the ongoing discussion about the future of the district’s physical facilities and to determine the board’s next steps in developing a plan that will eventually go to voters in the form of a tax and/or bond levy request. 

“We’ve had a lot of discussions within the community, but we haven’t really had a discussion with the board, said Mike Ruetschle, of the architectural firm with whom the board has contracted to develop a master plan for addressing the district’s aging buildings.

Ruetschle was on hand for the work session to present an overview of the process thus far and lay out possible options based on recommendations of the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission and community feedback.

In a series of public meetings that began in March and continued through the summer, the district has been exploring the question of how best to attend to school buildings that have been determined to have significant structural issues — should the district rehabilitate or rebuild? Each choice comes with comparable and substantial construction and cost, up to $31 million, by district estimates.

A secondary question pertains to the configuration of the plan. Will the schools remain where they are, with elementary-age students in the center of the village at Mills Lawn and older students at the McKinney Middle School and High School on East Enon Road? Or will students be located in a K-12-style campus at either site?

Ruetschle’s firm has drawn up multiple plans that implement various potential configurations, including a new option presented to the board Sept. 13 that Ruetschle said was based on public feedback at the last of three community pulse meetings this summer. That plan would leave students where they are located now and involve a combination of rehabilitation and demolition. New construction would include the addition of a performing arts component at the middle and high school site. The work would be completed in phases, addressing a vocalized desire among some in the community to spread out the costs over time.

The cost of completing any chosen plan in stages, however, would ultimately be higher for the district and community, noted board member Sylvia Ellison, who was participating via speaker phone. Ruetschle agreed. Long-term costs are another aspect for the board to consider, he said.

“I worry about deciding to put part of this off,” Ellison said.

Moving forward

The element of time and its effect on construction costs is also a consideration in how the board decides to move forward, district Superintendent Mario Basora said, noting that construction material costs rise each year. If board members want to take the issue to voters in May 2018, they need to decide on a plan by December, perhaps January at the latest, to meet ballot filing deadlines.

Board member Sean Creighton said he still wants more information, particularly more feedback from the community, before making a decision. 

“If we had stopped at every stage, we would have made a different decision” based on what the board was hearing at the time, he said. “Now we’re at a new stage. We’re getting another wave of people writing and being vocal” who have new views. Given that, Creighton said he wanted the board to pursue conducting a “statistically driven survey.”

Ellison said she is “leery” of a survey. “I worry that it would not address the complexities here.” Other board members agreed that a survey might not provide helpful information, but might flush out the opinions of people who are more “quiet” amidst public debate.

Nevertheless, ultimately, “it’s not really our job to represent all those interests,” Ellison said. “Most important is what students need, what’s best for them.”

Creighton said that an important constituency whose views had not been fully represented is parents. 

“We’re not really hearing from our parents,” he said.

Board President Aïda Merhemic agreed. “Who we’ve heard from most primarily are people who don’t have children in the schools.” At the same time, she added, more people are sharing their thoughts privately with board members — in person, by phone, email and letter. And their views aren’t necessarily what is being expressed by others in more public forums.

“I’m in favor of a survey for that very reason,” board member Anne Erickson said. “There is a faction of the community that has become very loud and ferocious and insulting. The newspaper has been part of that. We owe it [a survey] to the community members who are not willing to stick their head on the block.”

She said she supported taking the time a survey would need. “I don’t think we have any advantage of doing this quickly.”

Board member Steve Conn said he had concerns that extending the process would exacerbate community acrimony and further stoke the rumor mill. 

“I’m not sure what is to be gained by putting off a decision,” he said.

More time would allow the board to “present a more viable package to the voters,” Erickson said. “If we’re going to put this on the ballot, I want to put the best package on the ballot. I don’t feel like I’ve heard enough constructive comments.”

Erickson and Creighton both said that a survey didn’t have to be complicated. “We would target our parents. We would put it on the website,” Creighton said.

K-12 benefits?

In addition, Creighton said he thought an educational component had been missing from the discussion process thus far in that the community did not have information on “the benefits of a K-12 school, the benefits of one site, one campus.”

Ellison agreed. “What is good for students is K-12 on one site.”

In talking about a K-12 option, board members emphasized they are talking about a shared campus, not a shared building.

Basora said he sees educational value in the K-12 concept, but he does not plan to recommend a K-12 option for the current middle and high school site. “I have concerns about a K-12 option at the high school pedagogically,” he said.

Conn said he too did not support a K-12 campus at the current middle/high school site, and hadn’t heard any support for it coming from the community. As such, he suggested they take that option “off the table.” There was no argument from his fellow board members.

Conversely, the superintendent and board members noted positive aspects of locating a K-12 campus on the current Mills Lawn site.

Erickson said she had some issue with the opinion of some villagers in “the concept of Mills Lawn being a community green space.”

“While that’s a nice concept, Mills Lawn belongs to the schools, and if the community thinks Mills Lawn should be community green space, they should buy it and take care of it,” she said.

Several board members expressed dismay at the implied perception that older students “aren’t worthy” of being at the center of the village in such valued space, or that there is something to fear in housing them in closer proximity to younger children.

Basora said that while community desires are important, his first priority as superintendent is recommending actions that are pedagogically sound.

For the board’s part, however, Erickson said, “what the community thinks and what the community wants is a huge part of [decision-making].”

As such, the board agreed to pursue a survey that could be conducted and assessed before they make a ballot decision, hopefully in December.

Discussion continues

The facilities discussion continued the next evening, Thursday, Sept. 14, when the board had its regularly scheduled meeting at Mills Lawn.

Several community members spoke of their concerns about a K-12 campus at the current Mills Lawn site, and community member Demi Reber invited board members to meet with a group of residents who have been meeting independently on the issue.

Basora noted that the Mills Lawn location offered opportunities for “community interaction and civic engagement … that would not be possible if we were not one block from downtown Yellow Springs.”

Merhemic said she wanted to point out “the sense of place that our [elementary] students have,” their comfort being part of and interacting with the community. “I feel very concerned about empathy for our adolescents. I feel that these adolescents deserve the same sense of place.”

Basora said that in moving forward, he hopes “our community values and respects our experts. Our hope is they listen to our teachers, that they listen to our principals, that they listen to our kids.”

Community member Dawn Johnson, a community planner who is running for a seat on the school board in the November election, suggested creating “a blue-ribbon commission” to explore the facilities issue. “Bringing a community together is a process,” she said.

In other school board business Sept. 14:

• The board unanimously, with the absence of Ellison, accepted a letter from Susan Griffith, longtime district administrative assistant, expressing her decision to retire at the end of the school year. Board members suggested, in jest, that they not accept the letter. “She’s the glue around here,” board member Erickson said. Basora agreed with the assessment: “She pretty much runs the school district. It’s going to be a really tough loss for us,” he said.

Griffith’s advance notice is “a very selfless act,” allowing the district time to make the transition, Basora added.

• Steve Conn, the board’s liaison to the Greene County Career Center, reported that the center is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

• The board unanimously approved a one-year contract for Jovan Terrell as a YSHS/MMS study hall aide and added 12 half-days to sixth-grade science teacher Ryan Montross’s contract.

Also, Donna Haller, Jane Jako, David Johnston and Kaylyn Wall were approved as homebound tutors, at $25 an hour, for the 2017-18 school year.

One-year, limited, substitute teaching contacts — $90 a day, $45 for a half day — were also unanimously approved for: Ara Beal, Charles Bell, Clinton Buffington, John Blakelock, Christine Gustafson, Sheila Kruse, Ida Kwarteng, Lynn Millar, Sarah Strong, Lorrie Sparrow-Knapp, Jovan Terrell, Kaylyn Wall and Patrick White. Hortencia Meyer was approved as a substitute instructional aide at $11 an hour.

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