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How will you vote on the school levy?

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How are you voting May 8 on the school facilities levy?

Last week the News spoke to about two dozen villagers representing a cross-section of the community about how they plan to vote on the upcoming school facilities levy. The levy seeks to raise nearly $18.5 million for a facility rebuild/renovation project for Yellow Springs High School/McKinney School.

 The May 8 vote follows a year-long process that began early in 2017. In March of that year, school leaders presented to the community several options for school building upgrades. After two public meetings that spring, the architect contracted to make initial designs of the options, Mike Ruetschle of Ruetschle Architects, stated to school board members that a community preference appeared to have emerged, and that the preference was for a new K-12 building, at a cost of $32 million. 

At that point, some villagers expressed concern that the process was moving too fast. Over the summer, the district added three more “community pulse” meetings to look at facility options, during which many expressed concern over the $32 million price tag for the project. In the fall, a survey of 300 potential village voters made clear that the $32 million project was unpopular; more than 80 percent said they would vote against it.

In December the board approved an alternative project, a hybrid building/renovating of YSHS/McKinney School, with a Mills Lawn upgrade tabled to a later date. To fund the project, the board approved placing on the May ballot a 4.7-mill property tax levy and 0.25 percent income tax increase, to raise $18.5 million. According to school leaders, the hybrid project was its response to the community’s preference to make facility changes in stages.

For this story, the News attempted to gather a balance of opinions on the upcoming vote across a range of demographic groups. While opinions differed, villagers expressed common threads regarding the levy experience. Some expressed discomfort at feeling conflicted about how to vote on a school levy, since they consider themselves longtime school supporters.

 “I’m on the fence and it’s uncomfortable,” Amy Harper of Community Solutions said last week. 

Along with indecision, many villagers spoke regretfully about the level of rancor they perceive surrounding this levy campaign.

“It’s been very polarizing,” said longtime villager Kate Anderson. “In my time here, I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

One villager, who moved to town five years ago, asked to remain anonymous due to the controversy surrounding the campaign. An IT specialist, he blames the role of social media for some of the acrimony.

“Social media amplifies the conflict,” he said. “We express things online more easily than we would face to face.”

But he feels strongly that however villagers stand on the levy issue, they should treat each other with respect.

“Whether people say yea or nay, they should be respected for their position,” he said.

Elders for and against

Yellow Springs has a large percentage of elders, and many live on the fixed income of Social Security. For those people whose incomes remain static, the increasing costs of living in Yellow Springs has a profound effect, according to villager Susan Harrison.

“The affordability issue is huge,” Harrison said in a recent interview. “We keep on taking on more and more, and we can’t do that forever.”

A retired elementary school teacher, Harrison counts herself among lifelong supporters of education. She has never before voted against a school levy, she said, but she plans to do so on May 8.

“This is a first for me,” she said.

Harrison agrees with school leaders that “there are problems that need to be fixed.” The schools probably need some structural changes, but this project feels too big and too costly, she said.

History has taught Harrison that educational trends — such as the project-based-learning, or PBL, model favored by local schools, come and go. Consequently, she believes the facility needs of the schools will also change over time.

“Research shows that the most important thing in education is the teacher,” she said.

In contrast, longtime villager Mary Cargan plans to vote yes. When she attended a recent Housing Needs Assessment gathering at the Yellow Springs Senior Center, Cargan wasn’t sure where she stood on the levy. But at the event, she was impressed by a Mills Lawn fourth-grade class that presented its findings after a PBL segment on local affordable housing.

“I was so blown away by their knowledge, and the work they put into this project,” she said. Cargan was equally passionate after hearing a group of YSHS students who attended the recent March on Washington and gave a presentation on the event to the Unitarian Fellowship.

“I was very impressed, and I want to support the schools,” she said. “Whatever they’re doing in this educational process, it’s working.”

Former Antioch College dance professor Jill Becker also plans to vote for the levy. The recent flier sent out by the Committee for the Levy impressed her with the magnitude of the school’s problems, she said.

 “Honestly, I always vote for the schools. As a teacher, I have a lot of sympathy for what they’re doing,” she said.

In contrast, longtime villager Kate Anderson, a retired graphic designer, plans to vote no on the levy. Her vote is informed by the local people she sees struggling with rising costs in the village, as part of her volunteer work with The $10 Club, which provides one-time financial help to villagers in need. In the last year, according to Anderson, she has seen local need rise, especially after recent hikes in utility fees.

“It’s tough to hear people say, if this levy passes, I don’t think I can stay here,” Anderson said. She also volunteers with The Beloved Community, a project that includes providing free meals once a month, along with bags of food to take home.

“We’re handing out a lot of groceries,” she said.

It feels bad to vote against the schools, Anderson said, and she resents levy supporters who say that only those who support the levy support children. But overall, she feels most aligned with those struggling with the cost of living in Yellow Springs.

Families pro and con

In the first week that the Carr family moved back to Yellow Springs a year ago, Andrea Carr and her husband saw a change in their two children. Having endured the constant pressure of nonstop testing in their previous school in Kettering, the boys now relaxed into experiential, hands-on learning of PBL at Mills Lawn. In his first week at Mills Lawn, their second-grader was asked to carry water in buckets around town as part of a project aimed to help children understand how most people in the world have to work to get fresh water.

“I thought, ‘this is a great way of teaching,’” Carr said this week. “We saw our children begin to thrive.”

Because of their children’s blossoming at Mills Lawn, the Carrs will vote for the levy. 

Carr understands why many villagers might vote against the levy, due to affordability concerns.

“It’s not the perfect time for this, or even a perfect plan,” she said.

But seeing the change in their sons, the Carrs want to support local schools.

“I personally believe in Yellow Springs schools,” she said. “We have something great here.”

Amy Magnus also feels her son is having a positive experience at Mills Lawn — her daughter attends the Antioch School — but she is deeply concerned about conversations she’s had with those who live on her street, who have lived in the village for decades.

“I keep talking with people like my neighbors, who say, this is living beyond our means.” she said. “I hear too many voices saying, this is hard. This is too hard.”

A mathematician who’s retired from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Magnus cares most about addressing the needs of the schools in the context of the needs of the entire community. She has no doubt that there are legitimate needs to address in the YSHS facility, but believes in a more cautious, incremental approach.

“This feels like too much, too fast,” she said.

A significant project such as this should take not just one year, but years, Magnus believes, and community members should be called on to contribute their time and expertise beyond just listening to presentations of the district’s proposal. 

 “In real communities, it’s what you have to do, pitch in and help,” she said.

 Magnus’ husband, Jeremy Holtgrave, is also retired from the military, and now teaches at Central State University. Unlike his wife, he has not yet made a decision on the levy.

“I’m torn on the issue,” he said. “I see both sides. There’s the rising cost of living here, but there’s no dispute that something needs to be done at the schools.”

Millennials, artists

 Musician and 2012 YSHS alum Rourke Papania, who moved back to town after graduating from Ohio University in 2016, said that he and a group of his friends had considered writing a letter to the editor representing their perspective as relatively recent graduates.

“We all realize that it would be nice for the schools to have better buildings and not have last-century classrooms,” he said this week. “And there are very specific needs that need to be addressed,” he added, citing McKinney classrooms, which are contained in a bricked-over modular trailer, as in particular need of improvement.

But he isn’t convinced that the there is need for “a new main high school building.”

Safety concerns at the facility have been overblown, especially by a recently distributed flier suggesting various areas of worry, he believes.

“The way they’re talking about safety, they’re making it sound like the schools are going to crumble while students are in them,” he said, noting that his experience in the buildings only six years ago didn’t support this argument.

Rather than putting $18.5 million toward facility upgrades, Papania would like to see more of “a focus on teachers and materials that directly affect students.”

“Yellow Springs students are already among the best prepared for college,” in the current buildings, he said.

 Several other millennials contacted by the News said they need more time to study the issue.

“I’ve been so busy preparing to move that my mind’s kind of been elsewhere,” said Sam Salazar, another 2012 YSHS graduate.

“I realize there are a lot of problems [with the schools],” he said. “Change is needed.” But as far as deciding on the current levy question, “I still need to do some homework.”

For life-long resident and dancer Valerie Blackwell-Truitt, the levy question poses a fundamental dilemma.

“I typically vote for the levy. I think it’s important to support the schools. But it is hard, as a homeowner who is having more expenses, to make a decision,” she said this week.

“We should be a community where children come first,’ she said. But she wonders if this particular levy asks too much. “I know the high school definitely needs work, but I need to read more about the issue.”

At the same time, considering the possibility of voting against a school levy goes against her grain.

She said she remembered feeling frustrated when her children were in school by people who didn’t feel obligated to support levies if they had no kids in the system.

“I just had a problem with that,” she said. “It’s still our village. It’s still our children,” she said.

For local artist and longtime villager Theresa Mayer, the issue of how to vote is clear. She’s a “yes.” Her two sons went through the school system, and her oldest now teaches in the district.

 But she supports the measure for reasons other than her eldest’s teaching role, she said.

“The main reason is because I believe that having a healthy school is the keystone to having a healthy community,” she said this week. “If our schools aren’t successful, then our community won’t be successful.”

The cost of the levy “is more than I want to pay,” she added, “but I’m willing to pay it.”

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