Yellow Springs School board— Facilities back at forefront
- Published: December 2, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic hit just as Yellow Springs school district leaders were gaining momentum in addressing the development of a new plan to upgrade the district’s buildings — after voters rejected the first try in May 2018. Administrators’ recent focus on pandemic-related school closures, and the accompanying transition to online instruction, drastically slowed the facilities conversation, but didn’t sideline it completely.
Now the topic is back at the front of the district’s attention, and will be the central agenda item at a school board work session to be conducted online Saturday, Nov. 21, and streamed live on the district’s YouTube channel beginning at 9 a.m.
“Saturday’s meeting is a re-set meeting of sorts,” according to school board President Steve Conn. “Because the entire facilities process/discussion has been suspended since March, this will give us a chance to take some stock, to see where the [Ohio Facilities Construction Commission] is now, to discuss a timeline that makes sense, etc.”
Superintendent Terri Holden had suggested nearly a year ago that the district work to bring a facilities-related bond issue to local voters in fall 2021.
“We’re still looking at November 2021,” Holden said in a telephone interview earlier this week. “But in the end, [the timing is] the board’s decision, and there are a lot of things that have to happen before then,” she said.
First and of primary importance, she said, will be developing a new master plan, which will address a variety of questions that came under community discussion after the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission, or OFCC, completed an assessment of the local school buildings in 2017. The OFCC concluded at that time that Yellow Springs would best be served by replacing current buildings with new construction, possibly a single structure for all grades, and promised up to a 17% reimbursement in construction costs if the district followed its recommendations.
A series of community meetings subsequent to the assessment challenged the OFCC findings, however, and showed strong local sentiment for maintaining the district’s two school campuses in their current locations while favoring a hybrid approach — combining renovation with new construction — in completing any upgrades. And when early discussions broached the possibility of locating a K–12 facility where Mills Lawn stands, community members rejected that proposal, expressing a desire to preserve current green space on the 8.84-acre property at the center of town.
The measure the district eventually took to voters featured a nearly $18.5 million plan to renovate and rebuild the middle/high school facility on East Enon Road, to be paid for through a combined 4.7-mill property tax and a 0.25% income tax. The issue, which did not include possible plans for Mills Lawn Elementary, was defeated by a 65–36% margin.
For Holden, who came into the district as the new superintendent in June 2019, many of the original questions remain on the table:
• Should the district renovate, rebuild or take a hybrid approach?
• Should it maintain separate campuses or approve a single K–12 facility?
• Where should buildings be located?
• How will the project be funded — a voter-approved bond issue, OFCC reimbursement, the sale of district-owned property or a combination of sources?
What is not in question for the superintendent is the need for quick action. And her stated preference is for new construction of a single K–12 campus.
“We need new facilities,” she said during the regular school board meeting Thursday, Nov. 12.
The conclusion that major upgrades, if not new construction, is necessary also was reached in a second facilities assessment conducted by the Fanning Howey engineering firm in early 2019, as well as by an 11-member facilities task force that met throughout most of last year.
“I wasn’t here in 2018,” Holden said, but she has come to believe that the reason the previous master plan failed so dramatically was its projected cost to taxpayers.
“The cost was too much,” she said.
With that in mind she is looking at ways the district might “mitigate” project costs.
For one, “we don’t need two campuses,” she said during the school board meeting last week.
But the final decision on any plan is up to the school board, with input from the community, she said by phone this week.
“Developing a master facilities plan involves an engagement process with the community,” she said.
In an email this week responding to an inquiry about the process from the News, Conn stressed that the board has made no decisions.
“Let me reiterate, because once again there is apparently some confusion yet again about this, the board does not have a plan yet!” he wrote. “We have made no decisions about locations, whether to pursue one campus or two, and so on.”
Areas of exploration
The News reported this summer that the school district was involved in exploring a possible collaboration with Antioch College, along with the Community Children’s Center and Community Solution’s Agraria project, to establish an “Education Corridor” or “Education District” on Antioch’s campus.
The parties received a grant from the Yellow Springs Community Foundation to study the feasibility and potential in consolidating their resources. Among the suggested outcomes for Yellow Springs Schools was building a facility, potentially for K–12, on the northwest side of the college campus, with district-owned property then sold for potential housing developments.
But according to Holden this week, the talks have stalled, as the participants have not met in months while Antioch undergoes changes in leadership; and the grant money won’t be distributed until there is movement on the groups’ part, so no study has yet been completed.
She said the district isn’t going to wait for movement there, and is instead going to focus on pursuing other avenues.
The possibility of selling property remains under consideration. The district owns a total of 43.8 acres, with three areas on its two campus properties identified for potential development: 4.8 acres on the west side of the Mills Lawn property and 18.13 acres divided between the north and south sides of the high/middle school campus.
Recent Village talks about a new comprehensive land use plan brought out local leaders’ interest in pursuing development on the Mills Lawn property.
Residents who oppose such an action, however, have mobilized to preserve the Mills Lawn green space, presenting a petition to Village Council and meeting recently with Superintendent Holden. Three neighbors shared related comments with the school board last week.
Terry Smith, who identified himself as “a lifelong educator,” stressed that he is “committed to quality education at every level,” and the citizens group of which he is a part “recognize[s] “the challenges the school board has.”
At the same time, he wrote in a statement read by Holden, “We believe a vision of success for public education and a quality of life vision are both possible and we want to work together for this mutually beneficial outcome. … For the future vitality of the village, we understand that having green space in the downtown area for public use and the variety of festivals and events that bring visitors here is critical. Green space is also well recognized as a critical element of good community design.”
He noted that “there is broad support across Yellow Springs for preserving Mills Lawn as a public green space,” and he asked that the board work “together” with community members for a “mutually beneficial outcome.”
Michael Slaughter, a Yellow Springs alumni and the son of retired longtime Mills Lawn teacher Lillian Slaughter, wrote in comments read by Holden that he spoke for his family in hoping “to collaborate with the board to save the Mills Lawn green space.”
And Maria Booth shared “fond memories” by her family, including her two children, of “enjoying numerous community events at this green space, such as Art on the Lawn, Book Fair and the Yellow Springs Street Fairs. Our kids grew up playing on the Mills Lawn playground and have enjoyed countless recesses and weekends playing on the playground.”
She noted that since the onset of the pandemic, she has noticed an increase in community use of school grounds. In her statement, also read by Holden, she concluded that “the Mills Lawn green space is a key part of our village’s unique charm, and it would be sad to lose this vital green space that has been used by countless generations as a park.”
While school board members did not respond to the statements during the meeting, Conn addressed residents’ concerns in an email responding to the News’ inquiry about the board’s stance.
“As for Mills Lawn,” he wrote, “I’ll reiterate what Terri [Holden] has said consistently and repeatedly: people who opposed the school project in 2018 told us that they thought the price tag was too high. We need to work in whatever ways we can to make the project as affordable as possible. One way to do that is to consider our real estate assets. But beyond that we have not discussed anything more specific. And I would clarify — because there seems to be some confusion about this — that the land is owned by the district; the board acts as custodians of it and we must do with it what is best for the long-term health of our schools.”
Engaging with the OFCC
As the board sorts out options, Holden has re-established connections with the OFCC.
In January, she reported to the school board that the agency has a new program that allows for the reimbursement of a predetermined portion of district costs not only for new construction, but also renovation, if the community can raise 100% of project costs beforehand. The board voted in March to allow Holden to pursue participation in the program.
Holden told the board last week that the agency had been inactive through much of the pandemic, but has resumed its work, and she and district Treasurer Tammy Emrick had met with a representative the week before. She said the current reimbursement amount available for Yellow Springs is 26%.
She also said that the agency will decide whether to conduct a new assessment or update the previous one and then will recommend one of three scenarios: “complete renovations, new builds with some renovations or completely build new building(s).”
Holden noted in her written report to the board that the OFCC “always recommends districts with a student enrollment under 1,500 have a single building/campus” and that it “does not co-fund any building with enrollment less than 350.” In addition, “the OFCC has a two-thirds ratio policy: if it costs more than two-thirds of a new build to renovate, they will not co-fund the project.” Last year’s district enrollment was about 700, including open enrollment students. This year’s total has dropped to 685, with 308 at Mills Lawn and 377 at the middle/high school, Holden reported, adding that she believes the decrease is related to the pandemic.
Other recent school board business, including the new five-year financial forecast and a detailed update on enrollment numbers, will be covered in a future issue of the News.