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Schools analyze levy defeat

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In the wake of the school facilities levy loss May 8, the Yellow Springs School Board met in a work session Thursday, May 24, to discuss what the schools’ contracted architect described as a “decisive” defeat, and consider next steps in addressing the needs of the district’s aging buildings. 

The two-hour meeting, which was open to the public, was discussion only, with no action or official business undertaken. The board welcomed Matt Grushon, co-chair of the levy committee; Richard Lapedes, former school board member and according to Grushon, “elder statesman and cheerleader” to the levy committee; and Mike Ruetschle, the architect hired over a year ago to work with the district through the project’s development.

Former teacher sues
Yellow springs Schools

Yellow Springs School District, having recently filed suit against a former teacher for $25,000, is now being countersued by that teacher for $100,000.

Angela Bussey, a physical education and health teacher at McKinney Middle School during the 2013–14 school year, reached a settlement with the district in May 2015 after contesting her nonrenewal the summer before.

The district filed a suit against her in April this year, alleging she had broken the terms of the agreement by posting about the settlement under a fictitious name on Facebook.

Bussey, who lives in Beavercreek, countersued in Greene County Common Pleas Court last week, seeking more than $100,000 in damages. The suit also seeks dismissal of the district’s complaint and claims that the agreement terms had already been made public in a June 2015 Yellow Springs News article.

  In an email this week, Superintendent Mario Basora wrote that the district action followed board discussion in executive session. The board did not take action publicly.

“As the board’s agent, I called our attorney to file the court claim,” Basora wrote.

Board President Aïda Merhemic, who is personally cited in Bussey’s suit against the district, said in an email this week that she recused herself from board discussions on the matter. 

Voters on May 8 rejected — by a 64–36 percent margin — the district’s nearly $18.5 million plan to renovate and rebuild the middle/high school facility on East Enon Road. The district sought a combined 4.7-mill property tax and a 0.25 percent income tax to pay for the project. The property tax would have extended 37 years, while the income tax had a 30-year lifespan. Upgrades to Mills Lawn elementary school were to be considered at a future date yet to be determined.

Grushon, Lapedes and Ruetschle, addressing the board separately, all agreed that multiple and sometimes contradictory concerns led to the ballot measure’s defeat.

Levy committee postmortem

On behalf of the levy committee, Grushon presented a “post mortem” document divided under the headings of “general observations,” “process” and “future planning.”

Among the general observations, Grushon said there is a strong impulse in the community to distrust experts, especially “outsiders,” and that fostered disparagement of the assessment by the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission, or OFCC, as well as architects, contractors and consultants. He also noted that “social media is a powerful tool — for good or bad.” And that on Facebook, in particular, “there were too many instances of harassment, trolling and even threatening behavior” that hurt the campaign.

The most influential factor against the levy, however, in the committee’s view, was “timing,” Grushon said. In October, a survey conducted by Applied Policy Research Institute, or APRI, of Wright State University, found that more than 60 percent of village voters supported the district’s proposed plan. But within the next few months, Village utility rates went up, Greene County re-assessed property values upwards and the Miami Township fire station levy went into effect. Each of those factors, which exacerbated concerns about village affordability, were “outside the district’s control, or even influence,” the levy committee’s document states.

In terms of the levy campaign process, Grushon said the levy committee felt that the political consultant they hired offered an organized and thoughtful plan, but the committee failed to translate or adapt the recommendations “into a a YS-acceptable version.” 

Nevertheless, the committee would support the use of a campaign consultant in the future, he said, adding that the committee would have benefitted from more school board support and more community volunteers. His comment about board support elicited some conversation among board members who were unclear about how much they were allowed to participate by law.

As far as future planning, Grushon said that the levy committee heard, by way of phone calls to community members and in door-to-door canvassing, that many voters wanted “a sound plan” for all the district facilities. 

“The uncertainty of what would happen with Mills Lawn, when, and how much it would cost undermined confidence in this appeal,” the committee’s report stated.

The report also called on engaging the community in a way that there is “buy-in being built for the plan along the way.” Support needs to be “top-down and bottom-up,” the committee concluded.

And in an admitted “optimistic” outlook, Grushon said the committee hopes the levy loss “may be a turning point for the village and create change … that will, eventually, create stronger schools.”

A supporter’s view

Echoing the positive note, former board member and levy committee volunteer Lapedes said that despite the levy loss, good education practices continue in the district. 

“What’s going on inside the buildings is not, in my opinion, an issue,” he said.

Lapedes said he had met earlier in the day to discuss the levy loss with Village Council President Brian Housh, whom Lapedes described as a staunch supporter of the schools with many contacts in the community. Lapedes said his comments were based in part on their conversation.

And he agreed with Grushon on several points. Concerning a perceived distrust of experts, Lapedes noted that “in our village, we’re not fond of expertise … therefore the [OFCC] state report was found to be inadequate, inexpert, biased toward building new.” While he said he doesn’t agree with that thinking, he nevertheless believes it would be “wise to get a second assessment.”

Lapedes also felt, in retrospect, that the campaign communication style was “inappropriate” for Yellow Springs. “The [campaign] consultant has worked for [levy campaigns] all over the state, but they didn’t understand how contrary and picky this community is.”

He also agreed that timing was an issue. An additional factor related to timing, Lapedes said, was a feeling of unease among some voters related to the unresolved situation at the high school, where the principal has been on medical leave since March 8, the same week a police investigation into sexual misconduct between students began.

In addition, while there was consensus on the need to replace the middle school classrooms known as “the shoebox,” the community didn’t understand other priorities at the middle/high school campus, Lapedes said. 

“They didn’t grasp that the three-story tower is not structurally sound.”

Other factors in the levy loss, according to Lapedes: “unease about what’s coming down the pike;” “doubts about maintenance;” “and it didn’t help that the newspaper editor and a Village Council member made public statements against it.” 

He also shared that Council President Housh had urged taking time in going forward and not moving too fast with another levy proposal.

Board member Steve Conn expressed frustration with the idea that some community members voted no because they wanted to know more  about the Mills Lawn piece.

“It feels like a Catch-22,” Conn said. “What we were hearing is that people wanted this in two phases.”

Board member Sylvia Ellison cautioned against detailing future projects that could change. 

“It’s very tricky to talk about what Part II would be,” Ellison said. “It could really get off base really fast.”

Given the perceived reluctance by villagers to trust designated experts, board member Sean Creighton suggested making certain that the district find second and even third opinions. The community might decide to go back to the first assessment, but having the range could be helpful in securing trust and buy-in, he said.

Lapedes noted that large commercial structures like school buildings have specific codes and requirements. “This is not about your house,” he said.

Superintendent Basora agreed: “People in town don’t have that kind of expertise,” he said.

Lapedes also questioned whether village affordability was as a great an issue as perceived by the community.

“It was a red herring,” Conn said.

Lapedes agreed, but suggested the district “take them at their word” and address the concern.

Architect’s assessment

Architect Mike Ruetschle, who described to the board a timeline of district decisions and actions since his firm came on board in early 2017, said the district tried to deal with cost-of-living issues from the beginning.

“We made a strategic decision prior to the fire station levy to present the public with a range of options so the community would know something would be coming,” Ruestschle said. 

But in the effort to get ahead of the fire levy, “maybe it made us rush through that first part of the process,” he said.

He said he was surprised by the “decisive loss.”

The APRI survey had indicated nearly the same numbers, but in the other direction. “Many were surprised that things could change so quickly,” he said.

Superintendent Basora added that while some district leaders found some fault with the APRI survey questions, district phone calls to 500 people the week before the election found 53 percent in favor of the levy, 31 percent against and 16 percent undecided.

“The data did not at all support what happened,” Basora said.

School Board President Aïda Merhemic wondered if too many visuals were presented too soon. “I think it’s important to have visuals, but maybe it looked like these were set in stone, rather than ideas. … I’m afraid it inundated people with too much information,” she said.

In looking forward, Ruetschle said that other school districts where a loss vote is close often continue to work on pushing through the original measure. But the Yellow Springs loss calls for something different, he said, identifying three possible approaches.

The first would take the current plan and make it less expensive by keeping the three-story tower at the high school — if a new assessment finds it structurally sound. Focusing on replacing the middle school “shoebox” and the cafeteria kitchen and dining area, and building a new secure entry might cut the project cost by as much as $10 million, he said.

A second approach would be to take the OFCC, or other assessment, and working with community members to prioritize needs and costs the community would support.

A third approach would be to start over and consider new ideas not yet brought forward. 

“Really hit the reset button and go back to the drawing board,” he said.

Some ideas that were considered early and rejected because of cost and educational concerns included the Antioch University Midwest, or AUM, building and Antioch College campus. The AUM asking price last year was $16 million, though it might be lower now, and lacked a cafeteria and a gym, board members said. Classrooms and offices also would need to be retrofitted. The Antioch campus came with other concerns, including questions about autonomy (“who would be in charge”) and Antioch’s institutional stability (what happens if the college closes?).

Board discussion

Conn noted that in considering the possibility of other locations, it was good to remember that the district has property assets of its own.

“We own roughly 40 acres,” he said. “We do not need 40 acres for a 700-some student district.” Selling land could bring in revenue, he noted.

Also in the spirit of looking at the district makeup anew, Creighton asked if the issue of open enrollment might be revisited.

Other board members disagreed, and Basora explained that the practice is more than a matter of the state money and student diversity it brings into the local schools. The additional numbers allow the district to offer more classes and hire more teachers, he said.

“If we take away open enrollment, AP classes will go away, a foreign language will go away, music would be significantly reduced,” Basora said.

Merhemic agreed. When open enrollment was initiated here in the early 1990s, “curriculum was continuing to be winnowed down,” she said.

Amidst the talk about financial costs, Superintendent Basora said he wants to keep focused on “the educational impact on students.”

In his mind, the facilities question “boils down to two things: the educational value longterm and [being] financially prudent to maintain.”

The bottom line for Conn is that something has to be done.

“Even if we find a way to generate the money to repair the buildings to their original condition, it’s still a terrible building for the kids,” he said. “The three-story tower was a terrible building when it opened. And it sends a message every morning when those kids walk into that building.”

Decrying the “nastiness” that arose during the campaign, Conn said that the district now faces two difficulties in moving forward: “The buildings are still in bad shape … and the environment has been made toxic.”

The board agreed.

“It was discouraging and disappointing and very, very hurtful,” Merhemic said of the negativity that arose, especially on social media.

Board member Steve McQueen concurred. “I’’ve seen entire threads of entire nonsense,” he said. “How do you answer lies?”

McQueen also echoed Conn’s feeling of Catch-22 in moving forward. “How do you get the cheapest thing when the cheapest thing is turned down?” 

Nevertheless, Merhemic said she is feeling hopeful about the future.

“Because we are clearer, we have issues we can address we didn’t know were lurking,” she said.

What’s next?

Regarding moving forward, Creighton suggested that the board  “formulate the first step in what the process is going to be.”

Levy Committee co-chair Grushon said that the committee had talked about the question of how to move forward and agreed that the issue should stay in the public eye. 

“There has been a lot of discussion in the community — capture that now. Don’t let the opportunity pass,” he said.

McQueen agreed that there is “momentum” in the community, and grabbing hold would be beneficial. He suggested forming focus groups of people who voted no and yes, separately, to talk about their reasons.

Whatever direction the district takes, it “needs to be a transparent conversation,” Basora said.

Basora told the board that he had secured a structural engineer to visit the high school Wednesday, June 13, to examine the three-story tower portion. And in an effort to maintain transparency, members of the community and the press would be welcome to observe, he said.

He also suggested contracting with a company to undertake a full assessment of the district facilities, as a second opinion to the OFCC. But the board balked at the $12,000 cost and asked that he wait on securing the company’s services.

Also in attendance at the May 24 meeting was David Roche, who had written several letters to the editor during the levy campaign that challenged and criticized aspects of the plan.

He said that voting against the levy was hard for a lot of people, adding that he supports the schools, and he thinks the community supports the schools.

“It’s great that this discussion is happening and there is some movement forward,” Roche said. “I think it’s great you all are still talking about it.” 

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One Response to “Schools analyze levy defeat”

  1. James Ambrose says:

    Nice post to read!

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