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Village Schools

Citizens speak on school facilities

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Villagers’ questions and concerns about the impact of new school facilities on local affordability and the environment came to the fore at a recent public forum, held Oct. 11 at the Bryan Center. The forum was designed to focus on those specific issues, with the hope of more fully airing citizens’ views, according to one of the organizers, Kat Walter, at the meeting.

“We want to drive it a little deeper,” she said.

About 45 people attended the forum, organized by a group of villagers who have been meeting since mid-August to discuss concerns about the school district’s proposals for rebuilding or rehabilitating local schools. A petition stating the group’s reservations has gathered about 100 signatures. Of particular concern to the group is a proposal to build a single K–12 facility on the Mills Lawn site, a project estimated to cost $30 million.

This week, Superintendent Mario Basora publicly announced that he would not recommend the option of a K–12 facility at Mills Lawn to the school board, given community opposition to the proposal. (See Basora’s letter on page 4 of this issue.)

Should the district choose to rebuild rather than rehabilitate schools, school leaders have suggested a 35-year 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 for 35 years, or around $900 for an average $200,000 home, according to previous News reports. Another possibility floated by school leaders is a somewhat more modest property tax increase combined with a rise in local income tax.

“That price tag is too high,” villager Chad Runyon said at the forum.

Runyon, a science teacher at Fairmont High School in Kettering, was one of six panelists chosen by the organizers to present different areas of concern. Other local panelists included David Roche, a home inspector; Dimi Reber, a retired Antioch College professor; Vickie Hennessy, an environmentalist and biologist; and Dawn Johnson, a GIS coordinator for Warren County, Ohio, who is running for school board this fall. (According to Walter at the meeting, Johnson’s presence on the panel was “not necessarily an endorsement” of her school board candidacy.) The sixth panelist was Lora Dima, a parent from Germantown, Ohio, where a levy for rebuilding local schools was voted down three times.

Forum organizers invited current school board members, Superintendent Basora and school principals Matt Housh and Tim Krier to attend the meeting. Basora, Housh and two board members, President Aïda Merhemic and Sylvia Ellison, were present.

Affordability a top concern

Affordability topped the list of concerns among panelists and attendees. While expressing broad support for local schools — with some attendees saying they’d always voted for school levies — many of the dozen or so who spoke worried that a significant increase in school taxes would make living in Yellow Springs unaffordable for some current and prospective residents.

“It would be Draconian,” villager Mary White said of the potential tax increase. “I think it would drive people out — it might drive me out.”

Villager Carmen Milano echoed that view. “It would force my household out of my community,” she said. And she expressed dismay that the telephone survey commissioned by the school district to gauge public opinion on the issue didn’t ask villagers what they believed they could afford to pay for new or rehabilitated schools.

“I would like to be asked, ‘What can you afford?’” she said.

Villager Lauren Miller said the estimated cost of the combined K–12 building was too high for local homeowners to bear. “We can’t afford $30 million,” she said, adding that she’d calculated that villagers would each pay, on average, about $29,000 over the 35 years of the proposed levy for both the principal and interest.

Panelist Chad Runyon provided an overview of his calculations of current school tax rates in Yellow Springs, contending that villagers already pay some of the highest school taxes in the area. Figures posted on the school district website show that Yellow Springs has the highest school tax rate among those districts that use both property tax and income tax to fund local schools. Overall, Yellow Springs ranks 11th out of 30 area schools in terms of its effective millage rate plus approximate income tax millage rate, the figures show.

Villagers with a home valued at the village average of around $200,000 pay about $2,326 per year in property taxes to the schools, the district figures show. In addition, 1 percent of local income tax goes to the schools, meaning that those with an annual household income around $61,402, identified in a 2015 US Census report as the median for Yellow Springs, pay about $614 yearly. In total, villagers pay on average just under $3,000 in taxes annually to the schools.

Runyon cited recent and ongoing utilities increases and the tax hike related to the new firehouse levy, approved by voters last spring, as adding to the rising cost of living in the village.

“I can’t afford it now,” Stefi Campbell said of living in Yellow Springs.

Panelist Dawn Johnson presented figures from a 2015 US Census report that showed the household median income in Yellow Springs had declined by $5,000 since 2009. The data also showed that the village had seen an 11 percent drop in numbers of working-age adults during that same period, she said.

“We have fewer and fewer people of less and less means,” she observed.

Changing village demographics was also a concern voiced by Bob Baldwin, who said that the school population has been declining over the last several decades. Rising housing costs mean that local school enrollment may continue to drop, he predicted.

In light of these demographic trends, “we’ve got to slow this train down,” Baldwin said of the school facilities proposals.

The school district currently has about 750 students, which includes between 550 to 600 Yellow Springs residents and 150 to 200 open enrollment students, according to Basora at the meeting. Open enrollment brings greater diversity to the school district, as well as $6,000 in state funding per pupil, in contrast to $2,200 in state money for resident students, he added.

Balancing needs, values

No villagers in attendance spoke in favor of building new schools. Many, however, expressed a willingness to spend money on school facilities to address specific needs. Villager Gary Zaremsky, a longtime project engineer, said he wanted more details about what those needs are.

“We seem to be jumping over [a discussion of] what’s deficient,” he said.

Panelist Dimi Reber urged school leaders to develop a list of building-related priorities to present to the community, together with budget and timetable information.

Villagers should decide “what tax burdens are tolerable before we plan,” she said.

She and others argued that a piecemeal approach to addressing specific needs would help balance school district goals, costs to taxpayers and village values such as affordability and environmental protection.

Judith Hempfling, the only current Village Council member in attendance, said she favored the possibility of a more modest new levy tied to specific priorities for repairing school buildings.

Building maintenance was another focus of spirited discussion. Panelist David Roche, a local home inspector whose two daughters recently graduated from the high school, said his greatest concern was with what he perceived as the school district’s lack of adequate maintenance.

“A new building will not solve the schools’ problems,” he said. “The biggest problem is lack of maintenance.”

Roche also criticized the recent report from the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission, or OFCC, which recommends rebuilding local schools based on its inspectors’ assessments of deficiencies and needed upgrades in everything from roofing to heating systems to handicapped access. School leaders invited the OFCC to town this spring to assess the condition of both Mills Lawn and McKinney Middle/Yellow Springs High School.

But Roche said he was unimpressed with the OFCC’s analysis.

“It’s a boilerplate report,” he said.

He and several other villagers who spoke urged school leaders to get a second independent assessment of the condition of local school buildings.

By contrast, Superintendent Basora expressed confidence in the OFCC assessment. “I think it’s a valid report,” he said. And he strongly defended the schools’ record regarding maintenance.

“I believe we’re doing a great job maintaining our schools,” he said.

However, budget constraints and rising maintenance costs prevent the district from maintaining schools at “pristine levels,” according to Basora. The district is facing an estimated $2 million for roof replacements over the next 10 years, he said, citing that expense as one reason why school leaders began discussing the possibility of new school facilities, an element of the school district’s 2020 Plan, last fall.

Villager Parker Buckley argued that schools needed to budget adequately for maintenance or risk facing similar issues in the future, even with new buildings.

“It seems like this is a problem we need to solve,” he said.

Panelist Vickie Hennessy also cited the schools’ 2020 Plan, pointing out that the document includes goals related to alternative energy and conservation.

“I like those goals,” she said.

New construction contributes to climate change by consuming resources and generating waste, according to Hennessy. And the energy efficiency gains of new buildings take between 10 and 80 years to offset the climate change impact of their construction.

“I do not support new buildings for our schools,” she stated. A principled choice not to rebuild could be a “teachable moment” for students, she said.

Reber voiced a similar view, advocating for a “vision broad enough to include climate change, overconsumption and waste.”

Focusing on students

Basora stated his belief that community discussions to date had not fully considered one crucial element: the needs of students.

“One of the things that hasn’t been out front is what is best for the children,” he said, describing himself as “a little disheartened” by limited public emphasis in this area.

But villager Rose O’Brien demurred.

“I don’t think we’ve ever lost sight of the kids,” she said.

The proposed new building plans would address pedagogical concerns — that is, how today’s students learn best, according to Basora. This does not mean “open classrooms,” he clarified, but flexible spaces that support student collaboration. The district’s project-based learning, or PBL, approach emphasizes collaboration, which district leaders regularly describe as a critical “21st-century skill.”

According to board member Sylvia Ellison, “rooms do make a difference” in fostering collaboration and other skills.

But some attendees who spoke were skeptical that student learning required specific types of buildings. Johnson said research she’d reviewed on the subject focused more on furniture than space. And Hennessy praised the ingenuity of local students, whom she has observed carving out “little nooks” in the schools’ hallways to collaborate.

“To me, that was a big part of the learning,” she said.

Last Wednesday’s forum was the first citizen-organized discussion of school facilities. The district organized two community engagement sessions last spring, and three “community pulse” meetings over the summer. District leaders previously said they planned to hold two more public meetings this fall. Those dates are still to be announced. A telephone survey this fall has also gathered residents’ views.

Basora said at last week’s forum that he hoped the school board would be at a “decision point” in December regarding which facilities plan, if any, to put on the ballot as early as May 2018.

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