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School facilities update — K–12 options off the table

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The Yellow Springs school district is no longer considering building options that would put a combined K–12 facility on a single site, according to Superintendent Mario Basora this week.

Basora cited cost as the reason for taking the K–12 options off the table.

“In listening to the community, it has become clear that fully addressing K–12 at one time in one levy would be too significant an expense for our community,” he wrote in an email this week.

Board Vice President Sean Creighton agreed that community feedback had winnowed the options.

“The process begins to narrow [options] based on data and voices of the community,” he said in a phone interview this week.

Bolstering this decision are preliminary findings from the district’s recent telephone survey, conducted by Applied Policy Research Institute, or APRI, of Wright State University to gain feedback from villagers on the project’s scope and funding options. Basora spoke with APRI researchers on Tuesday to review initial survey results. Among the key findings are that 82 percent of the survey’s respondents were against the K–12 campus at Mills Lawn, Basora said.

On the other hand, 85 percent of respondents were supportive of a two-phased plan, with the first phase addressing facilities needs at McKinney Middle/Yellow Springs High School, and the second phase addressing needs at Mills Lawn through a separate levy several years in the future.

The survey was taken by 339 respondents, or about 10 percent of the Yellow Springs population. The district commissioned the research in September at a cost of about $9,600. 

Basora will publicly update the school board on the status of facilities options, including presenting survey results, at the board’s next regular meeting, Thursday, Nov. 9, at 7 p.m. at Mills Lawn.

Shift in project scope

The decision not to pursue a K–12 option represents a shift for the district, which began a public facilities planning process last spring with a total of five community meetings through the spring and summer. Three main building options were presented at that time: an option that would keep separate K–6 and 7–12 facilities at their current locations and either rebuild or renovate all or part of the existing buildings; an option that would locate a new combined K–12 facility at the Mills Lawn campus; and an option that would locate a new combined K–12 facility at the McKinney Middle/Yellow Springs High School campus.

Strong interest from district administrators, teachers and staff in a combined K–12 facility and early interest in such a plan from attendees at community forums last spring led the district to initially favor this option, according to Mike Ruetschle, the architect hired by the district to lead the community engagement process and develop initial designs.

“People got excited about it early on,” he said in a phone interview last week.

But through the summer, public perceptions changed “very abruptly,” according to Ruetschle. “The pendulum began swinging pretty heavily the other way,” he said, adding that such shifts are “normal” based on his experience leading public engagement processes in other communities.

At a series of “community pulse” meetings over the summer, some attendees expressed concerns about the expense of the K–12 option, estimated to cost at least $31 million, as well as the environmental impact of a new building project and the potential loss of greenspace in the village’s heart if the combined facility were located on the Mills Lawn campus.

Similar concerns were raised at a citizen-organized forum on facilities options held Oct. 11. The following Tuesday, Basora announced in a letter sent to parents, teachers and staff and published in the Oct. 19 News that he would not be recommending the K–12 option at Mills Lawn to the school board due to community concerns. The K–12 option at the high school had already been unofficially taken off the table by the board at a September work session.

“Although some community members have shared their interest in a K–12 campus or single school on Mills Lawn, most of the feedback has been in opposition,” Basora wrote in October’s open letter.

Options on the table

Basora said by email this week that he was considering recommending “other options” to the school board for a possible levy on the May 2018 ballot. These could include a “single building renovation/addition,” he wrote. Basora has previously said he hopes the board will make a decision on a facilities plan at its December meeting, to meet the filing deadline for the May ballot.

According to architect Ruetschle, the main option left on the table from the concepts originally presented last spring is what he called the “status quo option,” a more modest plan to improve the McKinney Middle/YSHS building. The high school has “greater facility needs” than Mills Lawn, he said, although Mills Lawn renovation needs could be addressed at a later date.

Specifically, this option calls for replacing the six-classroom modular unit at McKinney, constructed as a temporary addition in 1988, as well as replacing a portion of the original 1963 high school building. The 1963 portion targeted for replacement is the three-story wing that includes classrooms, the library/media room and the cafeteria and has “gaps between the walls and floors and other issues,” according to Ruetschle. Structures that would not be replaced include the portion of the 1963 high school building housing the gym, locker rooms and art room and the 2002 addition at the back of the high school.

The cost of this renovate/rebuild option has been estimated at $18 million. 

In the recent survey, 64 percent of respondents expressed support for such a plan funded by a combination of a 0.25 rise in school income tax and a property tax increase of $14 per month for each $100,000 of home value. That property tax amount works out to about $168 annually per $100,000 of home value, or $336 yearly for an average home value of $200,000.

More generally, 64 percent of survey respondents favored a combination of property tax and income tax increases, rather than a rise in property tax alone, to fund facilities upgrades.

However, respondents rejected a different combination of property and income tax to fund a more costly and ambitious $34 million K–12 facility, with 77 percent disapproving of such a proposal. That feedback reflects a strong overall disinclination among villagers to build a single K–12 facility — the option that is no longer being considered by the district.

School board role

For some citizens, the facilities process has brought to the fore questions about the roles and responsibilities of the school board vis-à-vis the superintendent. This topic arose at a recent Candidates Night discussion among local school board candidates.

In general, school boards are responsible for setting the vision for their district, while district administrators act to carry that vision out, according to Cheryl Ryan, director of board and management services at the Ohio School Boards Association, or OSBA.

“Boards are responsible for the what, and administrators are responsible for the how,” she explained in a phone interview last week. 

As superintendent, Basora is charged with making recommendations to the school board on facilities options he believes the district should pursue. But it is the five-member board’s job to vote them up or down, according to Vice President Creighton, who has served on the Yellow Springs board of education for almost 10 years.

“The superintendent has to bring things to the board for us to act upon, from turning on the lights to making hires,” Creighton explained this week.

In the case of the school facilities issue, the public has the final say. Should a levy for a school facilities plan go on the ballot in May, local voters will have a chance to accept or reject the proposal.

According to Ryan of the OSBA, the board, superintendent and treasurer together form the school district’s “leadership team.” Everyone in the relationship has an important role, yet the balance of power can sometimes tip, from the extreme of a board that micromanages the work of a superintendent to a board that simply rubberstamps administrators’ decisions, she said.

School board members deal with issues “at the highest level,” not with the day-to-day oversight of personnel or the finetuning of curriculum. But working at a high level doesn’t mean a board will or should endorse administrators’ decisions in all cases, Ryan said.

Still, consensus between a board and superintendent isn’t necessarily a sign of rubberstamping, she clarified. Such consensus may instead be the mark of a “high-functioning relationship.” When boards and administrators frequently reach the same conclusions, “it isn’t always a good thing, it isn’t always a bad thing,” she said.

But discussion is essential, according to Ryan, who called herself a “fan of conversation” at public board meetings.

“I’m an advocate of good discussion at board meetings,” she said. Not all topics require lengthy discussion. But when the school district is considering items that cost a lot of money, affect a majority of staff or draw high levels of community interest, discussion is especially crucial, she said.

According to Creighton, the Yellow Springs school board has supported moving forward with exploring options to address the district’s aging buildings since Basora brought the issue forward last fall. Addressing the school district’s facilities needs is priority five of six priorities outlined in the school district’s 2020 strategic plan. It is the last major unaddressed issue in the plan, Basora told the board in a strategic plan update last February.

The fact that the school district has a strategic plan makes the board’s role easier in some ways, according to Creighton. Before the plan was adopted in 2011, there tended to be less consensus and more contention among board members. By making clear what the district’s priorities are, the strategic plan “puts us on the same page,” he said.

“The plan is driving it,” he said of the work of the board and the superintendent.

Regarding the current facilities issue, the board has seen its role to date as one of listening to the community and gathering information, according to Creighton.

“From the beginning we wanted to sit back, listen, suspend judgment and collect data,” he said.

With several facilities options off the table, preliminary survey results now available and a little more than a month to go before a potential board vote on the matter, the board is shifting into a different mode.

“We’re moving out of that [listening] phase,” Creighton said. “Now it’s an opportunity for us to process what we’ve heard.”

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