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School facilities— Forum takes public pulse

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Questions about costs, the future of the Mills Lawn school property and recommendations by the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission dominated public comments last week during the first of three planned community forums to discuss the future of Yellow Springs’ public school buildings.

More than 70 people were present at the initial forum Thursday, Oct. 18, conducted online through the Zoom video-conference platform. Leading the meeting were representatives of the SHP architectural firm, which is working with the school district to develop a facilities master plan that district leaders hope to take to voters in November in the form of a bond levy. The district treasurer has estimated that at least $30 million will be needed to address all the issues that have been identified in the buildings, whether the community opts for renovation or new construction.

The current effort follows a failed attempt to pass a facilities levy in May 2018, when voters rejected an $18 million proposal to combine renovation and construction at the middle/high school campus, leaving consideration of Mills Lawn for a later time.

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Discussions about affordability, maintenance, affordability and location were at the forefront of that endeavor, and similar concerns appear to hold fast within the community, as expressed during Thursday’s public forum.

SHP architects and Yellow Springs Superintendent Terri Holden spent the first 50 minutes of the 90-minute meeting presenting a summary of facilities-focused efforts in the recent past and describing the current process that’s underway. The remainder of the time was spent answering questions submitted in the “chat” feature and hearing comments from several of the participants on the call.

In opening the meeting, SHP’s Jeff Parker said that the district’s planning process involves balancing three goals: to be “educationally fantastic, financially appropriate and community supported.”

“That’s what we’re looking for, that’s what we’re striving for, and that’s the intent where this process is going to take,” Parker said.

While Holden continued to assert that the master planning process is still in an early phase, and no option has been taken off the table, four scenarios have emerged at the center of that table, as reported in last week’s YS News and presented at Thursday night’s forum.

Three of the four options involve working with the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission, or OFCC, which would provide a reimbursement of up to 26% of project costs, if the agency’s guidelines are met. All three of the OFCC-recommended options involve transitioning to a K–12 building or campus at the site of the current middle/high school property on East Enon Road. One involves construction of an all new facility; one involves demolition of the three-story portion of the high school, the octagon-shaped music room and the middle school “shoebox,” with construction of a major addition and additional renovation; and one involves major renovation and construction of a small addition.

The fourth option, which has been labeled “Option 0” in SHP’s materials, involves working independently of the OFCC. Going that route would mean shouldering 100% of project costs locally, but also would allow the district to adopt an alternative plan if the community prefers one.

Todd Thackery, SHP’s lead architect in developing the district’s master plan, reiterated Holden’s assertions that no decisions have been made at this point.

“Right now, the hopper is wide open, and we are accepting any and all ideas for what the future facility configuration would be for the Yellow Springs district,” Thackery said. “Tonight, the door’s wide open; come up with any ideas you want.”

The OFCC factor

For her part, Superintendent Holden, who came to the district a year after the first facilities levy defeat, said she wants the planning process to be collaborative with the community.

“We’re going to need everyone to be engaged in these discussions,” she said.

Nevertheless, Holden has indicated that she favors working with the OFCC and adopting a K–12 model as the agency recommends. Her reasons Thursday were financial, though she has spoken in the past of potential pedagogical benefits in K–12 settings.

“I think we should absolutely explore this possibility,” she said last week of the OFCC’s financial reimbursement program. “That’s because when I came [to the district in June 2019], what I heard was the expense of the 2018 bond issue” was the obstacle for many of the 64% of voters who said no at the ballot box.

“I understand that,” she said Thursday of affordability concerns. To address that issue, the OFCC program “is a viable option for us,” she said.

But to secure money from the state agency means following its guidelines. The most relevant to the Yellow Springs district concern enrollment and the ratio of projected renovation costs compared to the cost of new construction. The state agency recommends a single campus for districts with fewer than 1,500 students and typically won’t put money toward buildings with fewer than 350 students; nor will it generally fund projects where the renovation cost is more than two-thirds (66%) the cost of building new. The district’s total enrollment, including open enrollment students, is under 700 and expected to stay about the same for the next 10 years.

Waivers of the OFCC recommendations are sometimes possible, and several participants in Thursday’s meeting asked about pursuing one or more to give the district more flexibility in its options. 

Megan Bachman, editor of the Yellow Springs News, asked if waivers might allow for renovation at Mills Lawn, the elementary school in the middle of town. Holden said recently that if a K–12 facility is completed at the current middle/high school location, then Mills Lawn likely will be demolished.

According to the SHP representatives, waivers for renovation at Mills Lawn are unlikely, especially with the school’s enrollment not expected to go much over the current 310, combined with high projected costs to renovate.

According to 2019-based numbers presented by SHP on Thursday, the cost to renovate at the elementary school is nearly $11.8 million, 96% of the cost to rebuild, at about $12.2 million. At the middle/high school, the estimated cost to renovate is close to $19.8 million (103%) of the cost to build new, which is projected at $19.2 million, according to data presented by SHP.

Lead architect Thackery also noted that inflation will have pushed costs of construction materials higher than those cited in 2019.

In answer to the waiver questions, Thackery said that while waivers are possible, “they’re not likely.” And multiple waiver requests for the same project make them even less likely to be granted, he said.

One caller asked if the anticipated construction of more than 100 new homes on the south of town had been considered in making enrollment projections.

Holden said she told the firm that completed the enrollment analysis about the expected housing additions. But while the firm considers the number of building permits that have been granted within a community, there are none yet for the proposed development.

Several participants asked questions related to open enrollment. One asked if the numbers were considered as part of the total enrollment analysis. They were. Another wondered if the number of students admitted from out of the district might be increased in order to raise the district’s total. The current percentage is 28%, and the state cap on open enrollment is 33%, so an increase would not make a significant difference. Another asked about the effects of eliminating open enrollment entirely.

Besides the loss not only of the students themselves, many of whom have other ties to Yellow Springs, but also the state money they bring, about $1 million a year, according to district leaders, ending open enrollment would change the OFCC equation, reducing the possible 26% reimbursement to the district.

The SHP’s Jeff Parker explained that the state takes a district’s average property value and divides that figure by the number of total students. Eliminating this year’s nearly 200 open enrollment students from the current total of 685 would decrease the reimbursement figure significantly, Parker said.

Several participants asked about the OFCC’s focus on the middle/high school property. Why that site and none other?

According to SHP, the state agency recommends a property of 47 acres for a K–12 facility housing enrollment numbers like Yellow Springs’. The suggested acreage allows room for parking, bus drop-off and pickup, playgrounds and athletic fields, Thackery said.

“But 47 is just a recommendation, not a mandate,” he added. The East Enon Road property, at nearly 35 acres, is “a comfortable size campus for what we’re trying to achieve here.” It also already has in place some of the desired infrastructure, such as the track and field, he noted. Not mentioned was the fact that the track and field are currently undergoing a $400,000 upgrade due to be completed this spring.

The Mills Lawn property, at less than nine acres, could not accommodate the parking and busing needs, he said. The prospect of a multi-story building with a smaller footprint was not suggested or addressed.

The fourth option, ‘Option 0’

While the OFCC’s three options focus on a K–12 facility at the middle/high school campus, a fourth option, independent of the state agency, is also a possibility.

The SHP representatives and Superintendent Holden described the option as representing the recommendations of the Facilities Task Force, which met for nearly a year beginning in March 2019. The 11-member group, which included teachers, students, staff, parents, grandparents and community members, some of whom had voted against the 2018 levy, gave their final report to the school board in February 2020.

In that report — after reviewing two separate building assessments; visiting the schools more than once; interviewing teachers, staff and students; and conducting a community survey — they produced a prioritized list of building needs, some to be addressed as soon as possible, others they thought were deferrable.

“They concluded that there was a lot of need in the buildings, and their recommendations were the critical pieces out of that, but it wasn’t a long-term fix,” Thackery said. “‘Option 0’ is what the district is doing now,” he said.

Chris Hamilton, a parent and member of the task force who called into the public forum on Thursday, disagrees with that characterization.

“I feel like it’s being seen as the do-nothing option,” he said of “Option 0” in a followup phone call. He tried to challenge an SHP statement about the group’s funding recommendations in the public forum chat, but felt he hadn’t expressed himself well.

An SHP representative had said that the the task force called for use of “general fund dollars without a new levy.”

That was incorrect, Hamilton said.

“We were told not to make funding recommendations,” he said. That was the school board’s responsibility, task force members were instructed. And while the group’s final report did not specify funding sources, the group reached consensus that the district should put more money into maintenance, and doing so likely would mean increasing the current permanent improvement levy or possibly introducing a new levy for maintenance purposes. Superintendent Holden and school board member TJ Turner were part of the group and aware of their conclusions, Hamilton said.

Hamilton also feels that the results of the community survey conducted by the task force are not being considered.

“The feedback was pretty significant that people do not want a K–12 school,” he said. What the task force heard from the community in spring 2019 stands in contrast to what felt to Hamilton to be a generally positive response to the idea by those who participated in Thursday’s forum. He fears that a supportive “bubble” around the master planning process thus far may lead to an unwelcome surprise when currently silent opposition appears later.

Future of Mills Lawn

Several participants in Thursday’s forum wanted more information about the district’s plans for the Mills Lawn property.

Teacher Eli Hurwitz wrote in the chat that he did not support a K–12 school being sited on the Mills Lawn property.

“It would be terrible,” he said.

Holden repeated that the district has no plan.

“There’s been a lot of publicity about the Mills Lawn site,” she said, referring to a group that has formed to preserve the property’s greenspace.

“The district has no plans to sell that greenspace,” she said. “I say greenspace not in jest, but it’s a school. It may be used as a park, it may be used as greenspace. but it is a school, and I need it as a school right now. There’s no plan to do anything with that, because whatever we decide has to come out of this process. Right now we don’t know if we are renovating or building new, so there’s no way to say what we’re going to do with property.”

She continued: “I want everyone to understand that when I speak for the district, I say we understand the emotional, educational, therapeutic benefits of greenspace, absolutely, but we are not in the position, at this point, first of all because we don’t know what’s happening with facilities, and secondly, we are not in the position to just say, ‘Here is our donation of Mills Lawn to the common good.’ We have to be good stewards not only of the property, but also good stewards of the taxpayers’ money. Hopefully through this discussion, whatever we decide about our facilities, then we can collaborate about our sites. There are no plans at this time to do anything with that site. Why? Because it’s my elementary school, and I need it for that.”

Antioch campus possibility

Several callers asked about a possible collaboration with Antioch College.

“Why is Antioch not listed as one of the options?” one participant wrote in the chat.

Holden confirmed that the district has been in discussion with Antioch to explore the possibility of collaborating on an “Education District” or “Education Corridor” on the college campus near the area familiarly known as the “golf course,” by Corry and Allen streets.

Matthew Kirk inquired about the known presence of sink holes in that area, but Holden said soil tests of the parcel showed that it was viable for building. In addition, Antioch has indicated a willingness to sell the parcel, she said.

“But we’re just not there yet,” Holden said of considering Antioch as an option. “The state takes into consideration what we [own] right now” in making its recommendations. It’s not as concerned with the where — but we are just not to the where. That discussion, the Antioch discussion, like the Mills Lawn discussion, is designed to come out of this [master planning] process.”

Moving forward

In bringing the meeting to a close, SHP’s Shea McMahan said the forum represented the beginning of the community discussion.

“This is not a final forum to present the results,” he said. “It’s a chance for you to hear details and start to gather the valuable questions.”

Advisory committees are continuing to meet, and two additional public forums are scheduled March 4 and 17. The last will feature some “concept testing.” Community polling, to be conducted by Paul Fallon & Associates, also is planned, McMahan said. The superintendent’s goal is to have a master plan recommendation to present to the school board sometime in April.

“I am relieved to know there will be survey and concept testing,” one forum participant wrote in the chat. The commenter wondered, however, about the polling particulars: will it involve the whole community, and how detailed will it get about possible facilities options?

Hamilton said he hopes the polling is extensive and deep and many community voices are heard.

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