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Village Schools

A closer look at OFCC report

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Yellow Springs schools fall far short of facilities standards set by the state.

A state assessment conducted last spring by consultants to the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission, or OFCC, found that nearly all major components and systems of local schools failed to meet state standards. The report recommended replacing most evaluated items, including heating systems, roofing, electrical systems and plumbing and fixtures, at a cost of $10.4 million for Mills Lawn School and $16.3 million for McKinney Middle/Yellow Springs High School.

That assessment is the basis for the district’s current draft plan to renovate/rebuild the middle/high school at a cost of $18.5 million, with a separate plan for Mills Lawn several years in the future.

District leaders have said that major local investments are necessary to fix myriad structural and mechanical issues and bring the learning environment of Yellow Springs schools into the 21st century. The state assessment, they say, is the best available tool for determining what needs to be addressed.

According to Superintendent Mario Basora in an email this week, the OFCC’s assessments “are considered the standard for assessing both need and costs for renovation and replacement of facilities.”

But some local residents have raised questions about the state assessment’s relevance to Yellow Springs schools.

Miami Township Zoning Inspector Richard Zopf, a former builder, said he believes the state’s assessment is superficial and overly generic, geared to state standards rather than true local needs.

“The whole thing is seriously flawed,” Zopf said in a recent interview. “I don’t think it relates clearly to our needs.”

And local home inspector David Roche said the assessment appears to be stacked against older schools, as well as those that simply lack those features the state believes to be important.

“I don’t think it’s a fair representation,” he said in a recent interview.

But Board President Aida Merhemic said the board sees value in the state facilities assessment.

“The OFCC assessment is helpful in giving districts a breakdown of what is needing attention regarding facilities and updating them. And they offer this information for free,” she wrote in an email this week.

In this article, the News takes a closer look at the state facilities assessment that is shaping the future of schools in Yellow Springs and across the state.

According to Merhemic, Basora will be presenting a school facilities proposal at the December board meeting, scheduled for Thursday, Dec. 14, 6 p.m. The meeting is open to the public and held at Mills Lawn School’s Graham Conference Room. The proposal will likely come up for a board vote then, Merhemic said. District leaders have previously said they hope to put a levy for school facilities on the May 2018 ballot.

Yellow Springs scores
Yellow Springs school facilities were evaluated last March by several representatives of Thomas Porter Architects of Toledo. The assessors, who are contracted by the state, evaluated Mills Lawn and McKinney Middle/YSHS facilities over the course of two days, according to Basora.

The assessors used a standardized assessment tool developed by the OFCC. That tool consists of two main parts: a technical evaluation of 23 major systems and components, and a more subjective appraisal of 97 criteria related to the physical school environment.

A copy of the final OFCC assessment reports for both Mills Lawn and McKinney Middle/YSHS is available at ysschools.org under the Facilities tab.

Yellow Springs schools scored poorly on both parts of the state facilities assessment. On the technical evaluation, both local school buildings scored “needs repair” or “needs replacement” across nearly all of the 23 items. And both schools showed a preponderance of “needs replacement” scores, with 15 systems and components so rated for each building, including heating systems, roofing, electrical systems, plumbing and fixtures, windows, security systems, interior lighting and technology.

Mills Lawn School was estimated to need $10.4 million in replacements and repairs to bring the building up to state standards, while the cost of McKinney Middle/YSHS upgrades was evaluated at $16.3 million. In both cases, the OFCC recommended replacing the buildings, as the cost of renovation was calculated to be nearly as high as building new, although the district is not pursuing that recommendation.

An earlier plan to build a K–12 facility was taken off the table this fall due to community opposition.

Though the assessment appears detailed, all items default to basically one conclusion, according to Zopf.

“Everything is in bad condition and needs to be replaced,” he said of what he sees as the assessment’s blanket conclusion.

According to OFCC planner Steve Roka, who was not involved in the Yellow Springs assessment but is familiar with the process, replacing items is sometimes the best way to bring facilities up to state standards. (Calls and emails to the point person involved in the Yellow Springs assessment from Thomas Porter Architects were not returned by press time.)

For example, a heating system might be relatively new, but if it doesn’t include air conditioning, the state would recommend replacing the heating with an integrated system, he said.

All elements of the assessment refer back to the state manual known as the Ohio School Design Manual, or OSDM. That document was written by the OFCC in 1997, in collaboration with outside experts, and is updated each year, according to OFCC spokesperson Rick Savors.

But local resident David Roche, a home inspector who also has experience with commercial buildings, pointed out that just because a school lacks an item in the manual, the building is not necessarily defective.

He made the analogy to building codes. A structure will fall behind code as it ages, but very few items are mandated to be addressed immediately. Older items are simply “grandfathered in,” he said.

“Code is very rarely retroactive,” he explained.

A random sampling of a dozen OFCC assessment reports accessed through a recent online search by the News shows that Ohio districts with buildings ranging in age from the 1920s to the 1970s received similar patterns of low scores. In common with Yellow Springs, the other districts sampled at random had very few “satisfactory” ratings, with most receiving a majority of “needs replacement” ratings.

Oakwood High School, for example, which received an OFCC assessment this fall, received just three “satisfactory” ratings, and 12 “needs replacement” scores. The original high school building dates to 1927, with several additions through 2003. The cost for bringing Oakwood High School up to state standards was estimated at $26.9 million.

Roka said low scores are not unusual, even when a building appears well maintained.

“A school can look great on the surface, but have a lot of issues with things like heating and roofing,” he said.

One aspect of the Yellow Springs report that surprised Zopf was the similarity of scores between older buildings and newer additions. In the case of McKinney Middle/YSHS, the 1963 original building and the 2002 addition received extremely similar scores, despite the disparity in age of construction.

“Everything is rated the same regardless of the age of the building,” he noted.

To Roche, this is an indicator of poor maintenance on the part of the school district, an area of great concern to him.

“If older buildings and newer ones get the same scores, it comes down to maintenance,” he said.

But Roka said in his experience most districts maintain their buildings well. A more likely explanation for similarly low scores across older and newer portions of a facility was the fact that state standards are regularly updated, and buildings can fall behind.

For example, many of today’s building systems have “a whole other level of complexity,” including digital and electronic features, than systems from even 15 or 20 years ago, he said.

‘Borderline’ ratings
On the more subjective portion of the assessment that covers the interior and exterior physical environment, Yellow Springs schools received an overall “borderline” rating, with similar overall low scores at Mills Lawn and McKinney Middle/YSHS. The district did not receive full credit for any of the 97 specific criteria in this section.

“What I had a real problem with is when we have exactly what they’re looking for, or even more, and we don’t get a 10,” Roche said.

Zopf called this section of the report “really easy to pick on” because Yellow Springs often failed to receive full points even when it was not apparent how the facility had fallen short.
Some of the criteria appear straightforward, such as whether the size of the district’s academic learning areas meets state standards. Other items are more subjective, such as whether “color schemes, building materials and decor provide an impetus to learning.”

In the case of the square footage criteria, McKinney Middle/YSHS actually exceeded the state’s 900 square-foot requirement, with an average classroom size of 950 square feet, according to the narrative accompanying the scoring. Yet the district received just 20 out of 25 possible points for that item.

Asked about items like these for which a district that appeared to meet criteria received only partial credit, Roka replied, “I’m not going to tell you it’s a perfect process. There’s some subjectivity.”

Oakwood High School received similar scores on the same portion of its assessment, the recent report shows, with an overall “borderline” rating.

To Zopf, the pattern of low scores is less reflective of local schools’ poor condition than an indicator that the state isn’t using the right professionals or appropriate criteria.

The assessors “are doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” he said. “But they’re architects, not contractors,” who in his opinion would be better able to evaluate how to repair issues, rather than recommending replacement.

But Roka said that assessors are chosen through a competitive process by the state, and are experts in their fields. Assessors are also well versed in the state’s standards and receive detailed guidelines on the state’s expected assessment approach.

On a broader issue, Zopf said he was concerned by the district’s reliance on a “generic” state assessment to evaluate its individual local needs, especially in light of the district’s rejection of other standardized measures from the state — for example, state testing and the Ohio school report card.

“How do you decide when to listen to the state of Ohio and when not to?” he asked.

OFCC background
The Yellow Springs facility assessment is one of thousands the OFCC has done over the past 20 years. According to OFCC Executive Director David Williamson in a June 2017 report in School Business Officials magazine, the OFCC has “touched nearly every district in Ohio and completely addressed all facilities needs in 259 of those districts.”

The OFCC is the main state agency responsible for capital improvements to the state’s K–12 public school districts. It was founded in 1997 after the Ohio Supreme Court found serious shortfalls in state funding of local school facilities. It provides state funding, technical assistance and district-wide master planning help to local districts upgrade their schools.
Since 1997, the “state’s school rebuilding program has led to the opening of over 1,180 new or renovated buildings,” Williamson wrote in the June 2017 report. The state alone has spent over $11.5 billion in funding classroom facilities and related programs, he wrote.

Currently, the average districtwide project cost is $40 million to $45 million for two to three buildings, according to an April 2017 report on Ohio school investment, published by the Intercultural Development Research Association.

The OFCC’s primary program is based on an annual ranking of all school districts in Ohio in order of property wealth. Over the past 20 years, the agency has been working down that list. Needier districts were served first, with state funding for facilities projects of 95 percent or more. Wealthier districts are now being served, with far less state funding available.
A relatively wealthy district, Yellow Springs ranks 487 on the current list of 610 districts. It has not yet come up on the state’s list for state facilities funding. When it does, it could be eligible for 17 percent of state funding.

However, district leaders opted last winter to apply to an expedited OFCC program that allows districts to begin working with the state on building projects before their number comes up, with partial state funding credited to districts at that later date. Yellow Springs’ current facilities planning process is being undertaken as part of this program.

In order to receive state funding, school projects must follow the state standards in the OFCC’s design manual.

Though the $18.5 million facilities option now under consideration in Yellow Springs does not follow all of the state’s recommendations, Basora said by email this week that the local district is hopeful that it can work with the OFCC to “co-fund the project on our terms.” The goal, Basora wrote, is to “build the school building our community wants and receive state dollars to support it.”

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