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Yellow Springs Schools — Holden addresses facilities

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A good chunk of the anticipated agenda for the most recent schools facilities task force meeting, Wednesday, July 3, was set aside to make room for incoming Yellow Springs Schools Superintendent Terri Holden to speak about her perspective on the task force’s responsibilities and role.

Her comments showed she holds certain expectations for the focus of the task force as its work continues. 

“We have to accept some things as facts,” she said, specifically citing the two facilities assessments conducted in the past two years.

“What we’re not short on, folks, is data.”

And she believes Yellow Springs students deserve more than they’re getting from their current learning environment.

“You don’t have to be an educator to understand the need,” she said.

The task force, which has been meeting regularly since March, was formed by departing Superintendent Mario Basora to come up with a proposal for the school board about how to move forward in addressing the needs of the district’s facilities in the wake of a defeated levy intended for that purpose last year. 

Basora had chosen 11 community members, some of whom had opposed the 2018 levy, to make up the task force, along with four ex-officio members — the superintendent, the district treasurer, school board member TJ Turner (as board liaison) and architect Mike Ruetschle — to serve as consultants. Turner had been co-chair of the levy committee, and Ruetschle’s Dayton-based firm had overseen the previously proposed plan.

Structural change

The transition in superintendents doesn’t change the task force’s basic purpose, but Holden, who is working on a limited contract until her official start date Aug. 1, is putting her stamp on the proceedings.

At the top was her desire, supported by task force facilitator Mel Marsh, to eliminate the “ex-officio” designation and bring in herself, Turner and Ruetschle as full members. The board’s decision in May not to renew then Treasurer Dawn Bennett’s contract effectively took the treasurer off the task force until a new person is hired permanently.

In response to a question about the purpose of the move, Holden wrote in an email this week that she sought the change because she feels that she, Turner and Ruetschle “represent important constituencies in this process.”

“Having everyone at the table creates an environment for open discussion and problem-solving by ALL involved,” she wrote.

Marsh, in a separate email, explained her perspective on the change. 

“Mario [Basora] had initially called for the ex-officio status to ensure the community could see it was not the same people in the district pushing for whatever the task force decides,” she wrote.

“With Mario’s departure, this becomes Terri’s [Holden’s] task force.”

Marsh added that task force members had been asking for more expertise to help them understand various building assessments and reports, and the change helped address that request.

“Terri felt that Mike has the expertise and should be able to sit at the table,” Marsh wrote.

As for Holden’s presence, “Since Terri was not part of the last design, again, it made sense to have her at the table able to contribute to the discussions,” Marsh wrote.

Task force members were not consulted about the change, though no one spoke in opposition during the meeting.

During past meetings, task force members had expressed uneasiness with the enormity of the task given them, concluding early in their discussions that, in order to make a proposal for addressing facilities needs, they had to understand what the needs are.

They’ve spent the last several months gathering information from a variety of sources, including the results of a new facilities assessment for comparison with the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission, or OFCC, report from 2017, and a presentation by local building inspector David Roche about his take on the findings of the second assessment. That assessment was conducted earlier this year by the design firm Fanning Howey and was comparable in its conclusions with the OFCC. The task force has also toured the buildings and learned more about district taxes.

Both the OFCC and Fanning Howey reports identified significant needs that would cost in the tens of millions to remediate fully. Roche, whose background is in home and commercial buildings, but not educational facilities, feels that different areas of concern can be targeted more creatively and for less cost than estimated in the reports.

Holden told the task force members at the July 3 meeting that it was time to accept the OFCC and Fanning Howey reports, and she admitted to having difficulty with Roche’s conclusions.

Noting the similarities between the OFCC and Fanning Howey findings, she advised the task force to put its attention toward prioritizing the needs that have been identified and figuring out how to share “the story” of those needs with the community.

“These are facts,” she said of the assessments. “The debate is whether we want to pay for that.”

She said that the more the task force members understand about the condition of the buildings, the better they can “tell the story.”

It’s important, Holden said, “to understand not just the physical conditions of the buildings, but [also] what is the educational vision of Yellow Springs Schools. … How the need impacts the vision, and why it’s critical.”

She said she felt that Roche’s analysis doesn’t take the educational element into account.

The strategic plan

Holden said that part of her job as superintendent will be working with teachers and principals and helping the community and school board articulate its vision as the 2020 strategic plan concludes next year.

In the meantime, she said she has looked to the existing plan for guidance in addressing the district’s school buildings.

“There are some priorities in that plan that really impact facilities,” she said, identifying three.

The first, “create an innovative teaching and learning model,” is fulfilled through project-based learning, or PBL, she said, adding that she believes the district can be more innovative in both PBL and other curriculum initiatives.

The second involves finding new funding sources. For Holden, that means identifying different ways to ease the community’s tax burden through such sources as grants and other revenue generating ventures, like the district’s Deeper Learning Center, which charges fees for teaching other districts about PBL. She noted that she has been successful in her past position at securing a variety of grants, and she brings that skill to Yellow Springs.

The third relevant priority for Holden is to “assure a functioning infrastructure.”

She said that the OFCC and Fanning Howey assessments provide an expert blueprint for fulfilling that priority.

The task force’s job, she believes, includes making sense of the reports and sharing their findings in laymen’s terms with the community.

One example, she noted, is the finding that “HVAC [heating, ventilation and air conditioning] is not sufficient for users.”

A consequence of the HVAC’s insufficiency is its impact on technology. “When it gets hot, our central servers shut down” and computers and phone systems don’t work, Holden said.

Her hope is that the task force develops a draft proposal that she can take to the school board. She then expects that when the proposal is ready, it will be shared with the community to determine the “appetite for a levy.”

If the school board finds that the community won’t support a levy, she said  board members will have to figure out how they want to move forward, including whether they want to seek other funding sources, such as selling some of the district’s land.

Holden has no doubt that the district’s facilities need attention.

“The kids deserve better,” she said.

In particular, she has serious concerns about the security of the buildings. She finds the current buzzer system inadequate and access to school grounds during the school day problematic.

“I love these campuses,” she said. “But man, these campuses are not secure. … I love the [open] feel, but how do we keep the feel and know that our children are safe.”

Task force response

While some task force members expressed support for having more direction as outlined by the new superintendent, others questioned some of Holden’s statements.

Chad Runyan, the father of a recent graduate and a science teacher at Kettering’s Fairmont High School, wondered why, if security is lacking, “we haven’t done anything yet;” his point being that he doesn’t expect the district to wait for the passage of a major facilities levy to take care of student safety.

Chris Hamilton, a parent, cautioned against promoting the OFCC and Fanning Howey assessments as the foundation for the task force’s work.

“There are many hard feelings in the community because the school facilities commission pushed to renovate or replace everything,” he said. “Perhaps we should accept their recommendations as problems, not as solutions.”

Kat Walter, who has said she joined the task force to promote community collaboration, expressed hesitancy about declaring the assessment conclusions as facts.

“I am also concerned that so many community members were able to easily poke holes in even the identification of problems. We must be very careful how we evaluate the recommendations,” she said. “David [Roche] gave us many useful ideas.”

But Holden responded, “If we don’t trust the reports, what can we trust?”

Runyon was also hesitant about embracing the assessment reports.

“I am not surprised that the Fanning Howey report was so similar to the school facility report, because both are in the same business of building new schools,” Runyon said. 

Several task force members said that it seemed the assessments based some of their conclusions on age rather than functionality.

“I would like an assessment of actual conditions rather than the age of the items,” Runyon said. “For example, Fanning Howey did not go into and under the ‘shoebox’ [the McKinney Middle School’s modular unit]. They just looked at the age of it.”

Task force members agreed that forthcoming reports on maintenance, environmental conditions and technology will help them sort through current and future needs and better establish priorities.

After Holden’s presentation, they began looking at problems identified in the Fanning Howey assessment and analyzing them through the lens of five
“guiding principles,” established in a meeting last month: affordability; maintenance; health, safety and security; 21st century skills; and Yellow Springs values.

The conversation will continue at the group’s next meeting, Wednesday, July 17, 6–8 p.m., in the John Graham Meeting Room at Mills Lawn. The public is welcome to attend as observers. 

The additional discussion from both meetings will be covered in a future News article.

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