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How safe are village schools?

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Local electrician Larry Gerthoffer (Larry Electric) was surprised when he looked at the flier he received recently from the Yellow Springs school district levy committee, featuring six photos with the headline, “Serious Problems Exist in Our Schools.” The photos included one showing a mass of tangled wires identified, in all capital letters and an exclamation point, as “Overloaded Electrical!”

The flier ‑— which also featured photos of exposed asbestos, leaky plumbing, crumbling buildings and an open door — urged villagers to fix the problems by voting for the $18.5 million school facilities levy on May 8. 

What was surprising to Gerthoffer was that the wires in the photo weren’t electrical wires, but appeared to be cables for either phone or IT (information technology).

Carlos Landaburu, owner of Carlos Computer Service, was also surprised by the photo. He’s very familiar with the tangled mass of spaghetti cables used in IT systems, similar to those in the photo.

“Either the people who made the photos didn’t really know the difference, or they’re using scary pictures of something else to convey a problem with electrical wiring,” Landaburu said last week. “It’s exaggerating the problem.”

The levy flier was created by the Committee for the Levy, composed of TJ Turner, Jalana Lazar and Matt Grushon, with help  from volunteer Richard Lapedes, Turner said last week. The flier evolved from the group looking closely at the facilities assessment of the Yellow Springs High School/McKinney School from the Ohio Facilities Construction Committee, or OFCC, according to Turner, and then taking photos to highlight areas of concern. The group then hired a Vandalia graphics design firm to create the flier.

It doesn’t really matter whether the wires in the electrical photo are electrical or IT, Turner, a materials engineer at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, said last week, because the schools have significant needs in both the electrical and information technology areas. Specifically, the current electrical system won’t be able to handle the demand of increased technological needs, he said.

“At the end of the day, we want citizens to be informed,” he said. “There are real issues at the schools. If we want to stick our heads in the sand, that’s not the best approach.”

In recent weeks, the focus of those promoting the YSHS/McKinney facilities levy seems to some villagers to have shifted to safety, as epitomized by the flier and recent letters to the editor in this paper. Along with the photo of the electrical “overload” in the levy committee flier, photos of exposed asbestos and a door cracked open, implying the entrance of a school shooter, drew attention.

“We didn’t hear about safety at first,” villager Richard Zopf said recently, regarding his attendance at a levy meeting a year ago. “At first it was all about new buildings needed for pedagogical reasons. They keep changing what needs to be done as they get feedback.”

But the focus of the levy campaign hasn’t shifted, according to Superintendent Mario Basora in a recent email.

 “The school district is not highlighting safety over other factors in providing information to the community,” Basora wrote in a recent email, emphasizing that the flier came from the levy committee and not the school district. “I do know that questions about safety have been asked by community members and it has become one of many important discussion topics around the community when discussing the levy, and how it will increase safety in local schools.”

Levy committee member Turner agreed with Basora that attention to safety issues is not recent.

“It’s not a new focus,” he said. “It’s been one of the primary drivers of the campaign from the get-go. Maybe recently it got brought out more.”

And to committee member Lazar, what’s most critical is educating the community to facility needs.

“Our primary focus is getting accurate information out to as many voters as possible, in as many ways possible, as many times as possible, between now and Election Day. We think the mailer and photos do that in an impactful fashion,” Lazar wrote in a recent email. “This levy is too important to our community and future for us not to pull out all the stops. The fact is our middle/high school has serious, documented issues that we as a community cannot continue to ignore or patch over if we truly value education.”

How safe?

 How safe is Yellow Springs High School/McKinney School? 

Last week the News asked this question of Craig Conrad, who oversaw maintenance for 27 years until his retirement in 2012. He was asked which components of the building, if any, concerned him regarding safety.

“Nothing comes to mind,” he said in an interview. “For the age of the school building, we tried to make it safe.”

Built in 1963, the building is more than 50 years old, and that’s the biggest problem.

“It’s a constant battle to keep things going because of its age,” he said.

Yet keeping things going was what Conrad did. While funding for that challenge was inadequate at first, the district later passed a permanent improvement levy that allowed more spending on maintenance, he said. That levy allowed the district to make a 5-year plan, prioritizing improvements that needed to be made. 

Overall, according to Conrad, “If the building was unsafe, we wouldn’t have let people in.”

The school district’s current proposal to keep parts of the current YSHS building and replace older sections seems a good one, Conrad believes.

“It makes no sense to get rid of the newer sections,” he said.

 At the heart of the safety question is the facilities assessment report compiled a year ago by the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission, or OFCC. While the report does not have a category directly related to safety, it recommends replacement of all of the school’s major systems, including electrical, heating, roofing, plumbing and fixtures, at a total cost at YSHS/McKinney at $16.3 million.

For the past 20 years, the OFCC has undertaken a substantial effort to rebuild or renovate schools, spending $11.5 billion to rebuild over 1,180 buildings, according to OFCC Executive Director David Williamson in a June 2017 report in the School Business Officials journal.

The OFCC assessments “are considered the standard for assessing both need and costs for renovation and replacement of facilties,” Superintendent Basora stated in a Dec. 2017 News article.

However, the agency has its critics. One of them is Frank Quinn of Heritage Ohio in Columbus, a nonprofit that advocates for historical structures. According to Quinn, the OFCC assessments are biased against older structures, and the agency too often takes the “easy” route of tearing down buildings and building new, rather than the harder work of remodeling.

“From my perspective, while building a school in a cornfield, or scraping a site, is the easy answer, it’s not necessarily the right answer,” Quinn wrote in an email. 

The OFCC building assessments are also flawed because the professionals who perform the assessments tend to be from architectural firms that have far more experience building new than remodeling, Quinn said.

For the Yellow Springs assessment, the OFCC hired Thomas Porter Architects of Toledo, which conducted the study in March 2017. It’s not clear how long the assessment took, or how many people were involved. (While OFCC Program Director Glenn Rowell told the News last summer that the assessment took about four hours, he later said that was not accurate.) Contacted by phone, architect Julie Apt of Thomas Porter, who signed off on the Yellow Springs assessment, said she’d be happy to talk about the Yellow Springs study, but needed the permission of the OFCC. 

However, OFCC spokesman Rick Savors said last week that the agency does not allow its contracted assessors to speak to the press. The agency did not provide specific information on the amount of time spent on the local assessment.

Having read the assessment, villager and professional building inspector David Roche criticized the OFCC process as too quick and too general to be meaningful.

“It’s a very fast process. It’s boiler plate.” he said. “The document used is like the one I use in house inspections.”

Is asbestos a problem?

 Another photo in the levy flier shows a pipe covered with a flaky white substance, identified with the single word, “ASBESTOS!” 

To building inspector David Roche, the photo is misleading.

“It’s a hype,” he said of the photo. “Everyone gets carried away with asbestos.”

Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous mineral, and exposure to it has been linked to a particularly virulent form of cancer. However, the mineral, often used in insulation, is present in most old buildings. The photo in the flier appears to come from a boiler pipe in the high school basement, Conrad said.

While the asbestos shouldn’t be exposed on a pipe, as in the photo, the presence of it in the school has never been considered a problem, he said.

During his tenure as maintenance supervisor, the firm Dayton Environmental Services visited the school twice yearly to inspect the asbestos, advising the schools to use the EPA-approved solution of wrapping the substance to contain it.

 “Their recommendation was to manage it in place as best we could,” he said in an interview last week.

To Roche, using asbestos in the flier was a scare tactic.

“There’s an easy fix for asbestos,” Roche said. “You encapsulate it. Even the EPA says it’s okay as long as you don’t disturb it.”

Last week Turner of the levy committee, who took the photo, agreed that there is no safety risk with asbestos when it’s encapsulated. But the presence of the mineral in the school is still a problem, he believes, because the substance can be disturbed when repairs are made, thus making it a matter of concern.

Rather than having to be careful not to disturb the substance, the school would be better off getting rid of it, Turner said. According to the OFCC report, the cost of removing asbestos and other hazardous materials, would be $447,285.

“It’s best to get it completely out, so you never have to worry about an accidental release,” he said.

Electric overload?

According to the recent flier photo, the electrical system has overloaded circuits. In the worst case scenario, a situation like this could lead to a fire.

According to levy committee member TJ Turner, he chose the electrical system “overload” photo after reading the assessment of school conditions from the OFCC.

However, electrician Gerthoffer, after studying the OFCC document, did not come to the same conclusion. 

“I don’t see anything that indicates overload,” he said.

According to the assessment, the high school electrical systems in all sections of the building are in either good or fair condition. However, classrooms do not have an adequate number of outlets, the document states, noting that classrooms have on average six general purpose outlets and two designated outlets (for computer use). The assessment also notes that the system is not equipped with an emergency generator, nor with adequate lighting protection safeguards.

The OFCC assessment recommends that the electrical system needs to be replaced because it doesn’t meet the Ohio School Design Manual standards “in supporting the current needs of the school and will be inadequate to meet future needs.”

The cost of replacement would be $1,204,736. 

It’s unclear if this amount is appropriate since the schools’ future needs are unstated, according to Gerthoffer.

“Without a clear set of marching orders, it’s unclear how much this should cost,” he said.

Gerthoffer said that he’s also not familiar with the Ohio Design Standards cited by the OFCC. The Ohio Design Standards are created by the OFCC and updated yearly, according to OFCC spokesperson Savors.

Former maintenance supervisor Conrad concurred with Gerthoffer regarding the electrical system.

“It was never on my radar as a safety concern,” he said, adding that bringing the electrical system up to code would be costly, but “you don’t have to bring it up to code.”

“It’s not unsafe. The outlets are grounded,” he said.

Still, Conrad acknowledged that meeting future increased electrical needs could be a challenge.

“It’s a concern that you’re already at capacity, and not a lot can be added on,” he said.

Entrance security

Keeping students safe at a time when school shootings have become alarmingly frequent is a significant aspect of school safety, one that especially resonates with parents and school staff. At the most recent community informational meeting on the school levy, which followed closely after the Parkland, Fla. school shooting, parents questioned school leaders about the levy’s affect on student safety.

The design of the new school, which includes new outdoor areas for students to gather, would facilitate escape from the school should there be an emergency, Basora said at the meeting.

In recent emails, school leaders emphasized that the addition of a security vestibule at the front entrance of the school is part of the proposed new construction. A vestibule would provide an area where any visitor is contained before receiving permission to enter. Currently, while doors to the high school are locked and a visitor needs to be buzzed in to enter, there is still confusion when many people are entering at once, according to Turner, who has three children in the public schools.

“A vestibule gives more control over who goes in and out,” Turner said. “It’s a place where you can see who the visitor is, where another person has eyes on him.”

Asked about his concerns regarding safety in YSHS, Architect Mike Ruetschle, who made an initial design of the proposed new building, prioritized preventing school shootings. A security vestibule is considered a best practice strategy according to the standards of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, or CPTED, a design strategy that emphasizes safety, he wrote.

“The most obvious security issue (and this is not unique to YSHS, I have many other clients dealing with older school buildings with the same situation) is the lack of a secure school front entrance,” Ruetschle wrote in a recent email. “CPTED is based on the idea that people are less likely to commit crimes when they feel like they are being observed. Limiting and regulating entrance reduces opportunities for crime and allows for more efficient screening of persons entering a facility. The new plan for the HS/MS incorporates a secure main entrance in the design.”

Building inspector Roche, himself the parent of a just-graduated YSHS student, agrees that adding a vestibule is a good idea to enhance safety at the school. However, he questions why such an extensive renovation project is necessary.

“You don’t build a whole school to get a vestibule,” he said, adding that vestibules are relatively easy to either add to the outside of, or place inside, an already exisiting building.

However, according to Basora last week, the specific configuration of the YSHS entrance requires a substantial renovation to incorporate a security vestibule.

“It is impossible to add this to the current building without also adding a new office because you still have to go through the main hallway to get to the office,” Basora wrote in an email. “Adding a new office would be an addition and not a renovation.”

The OFCC assessment also recommends tightening control around the school entrance. And in other school safety issues, the report recommends that the district replace its fire alarm system, in order to meet Ohio Design Manual standards. 

The proposed new building would also have a tornado shelter capable of protecting students from a Category 5 tornado, according to Turner. Currently, students gather in a downstairs hallway next to the gym, and some go to the basement, during tornado warnings. 

The OFCC report estimates the cost of school security measures at $236,552. It also estimates replacing the fire alarm system at $111,343, and $357,582 for Life Safety, which includes a new fire suppression system. There is no figure for construction of a new tornado shelter, which would also serve as the music room for the facility, according to the proposal for the new facility.

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