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Oct
16
2021
Village Schools

Forums invite facilities input

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The Yellow Springs school facilities master planning process is continuing to move forward, and district Superintendent Terri Holden expects to take a proposal to the school board in a specially called meeting later this month.

The district’s goal is to put a facilities-related levy request on the November ballot.

Holden said in a phone call this week that the process is progressing on schedule.

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All three planned public forums have taken place in an online-conference format, and a random-sample survey of local residents is in its second week.

The survey, conducted by Fallon Research & Communications Inc., via phone calls and texts, asks respondents to rank the importance of current local issues; presents renovation versus construction choices being considered by the district, including cost options; and concludes with an opportunity to share personal thoughts, according to people who have received it.

Holden said the survey is collecting responses from a randomly selected 150–200 local voters, and will conclude when the target number is reached. Random sampling surveys, by definition, seek responses from a percentage of a population or group in which every potential respondent has the same probability of being chosen.

The forums — Feb. 18, March 4 and March 17 — each lasted 90 minutes and featured presentations by the superintendent and representatives of SHP Design, the Cincinnati-based architectural firm working with the district, combined with questions and comments from community members. Most community input was shared in writing through the video conference call’s “chat” feature.

While the News has reported on the highlights of each forum, particularly the construction and/or renovation options under consideration and the potential costs for each, this article takes a closer look at additional questions, concerns and suggestions raised by participating community members.

Community view?

An online meeting in which participants express their comments in writing doesn’t give the same kind of sense about the general feeling of a group — whether receptive, oppositional or wary — as an in-person setting does. But it also allows more thoughts to be expressed than time might permit for people to speak during an in-person gathering.

As several participants pointed out, however, there is no way to know how much the views expressed during the forums represented the feelings of the wider community.

Attendance fluctuated from more than 70 at the first forum, over 80 at the second and under 70 at the third, with a number of people logging on for more than one meeting. In addition, about a quarter of the participants appeared to be already involved in the master planning process as district staff and/or members of the advisory groups.

Comprehensive community representation was a concern for at least three people who attended all three forums, the last two of which included polls of the participants about their role in the community and their preferred facilities options.

Parent Chris Hamilton noted, “for perspective,” that the fewer than 70 people on the March 17 conference call, were “out of 3,500 residents.”

Parent Matthew Kirk took issue with the polling as well.

“It over represents the constituency,” Kirk wrote. “I counted in three categories: Resident, Parent and Business Owner. I don’t like that [the polls] are being published in the paper [which occurred following the March 4 forum], as I feel it contributes to a faux narrative.”

And resident Kathy Adams, a parent of recent school district alumni, felt the majority of participants reflected only one side of the issue, with most indicating they favored building a new K–12 facility.

“This group is very decidedly pro the most expensive option. Whereas, the community wasn’t last time,” she wrote during the last forum in reference to the 2018 failed facilities levy attempt.

Parent Naomi Bongorno, however, challenged Adams’ characterization.

“I don’t think that’s a fair comparison, Kathy,” Bongorno wrote. “No one is voting for the most expensive option because it’s expensive.” She added that the most expensive option appeared to be pursuing major renovations at the two campuses, as they would not qualify for an anticipated 26% reimbursement from the state.

Parent David Diamond agreed with Bongorno.

“The full renovation option is the most expensive up front, because it would have no state support,” Diamond wrote.

Despite concerns over incomplete representation, the chat feature was active during all three meetings, with a range of opinions and issues being raised and participants addressing each other. The most lively exchanges involved questions about the comparative costs of renovation versus construction; the pros and cons of a K–12 building; and the future of Mills Lawn Elementary School.

Financing

Whether the district decides to pursue renovation, construction or a combination of the two, voters will be presented with a levy to pay for the plan. Forum participants asked questions about bond rates and the anticipated life of a bond levy. They also wanted more information about the possibility of combining a property levy with an income tax, as was tried with the failed levy attempt in 2018. And they wondered about the financial effects of other district expenditures along with sources for additional revenue.

According to district Treasurer Tammy Emrick, the district anticipates a bond interest rate of about 4%.

Also weighing in to the discussion was Rebecca Princehorn, an attorney with Bricker and Eckler in Columbus, who specializes in public finance. Princehorn said that bonds are currently at a particularly low rate, and she was aware of a school district that recently secured a bond at less than 3% interest.

District leaders also confirmed that the bond would extend for 37 years, a typical time frame.

“37 years?!?!?!” wrote Kathy Adams.

Chris Hamilton asked the district to provide the community with figures showing the “total amount of principle and interest” that would be accrued over the life of a 37-year bond. Such figures have not yet been detailed.

Parent Amy Magnus added that “operating expenses and maintenance” also play a part in total costs.

Adams expressed concern about the financial effects of the pandemic, particularly the state’s recent cuts in education spending and the possible cost of addressing “the learning loss of over a year.” She also noted that the district recently spent $400,000 on track and field repairs at the middle/high school campus and is still paying off a 2002 bond for major renovations at both school campuses, wondering if the overall financial health of the district puts it in a position to take on a greater financial load.

Asked how much longer the district would be paying on the 2002 bond, Treasurer Emrick said the last payment is scheduled Dec. 1, 2027.

Noting that the district’s recent five-year forecast anticipates a budget deficit in 2024, resident Parker Buckley asked if voters will be asked to approve a new operating levy in the near future, in addition to a facilities levy.

Emrick said the projections are not as dire as they may seem, and she expects that the district will be able to reverse the negative trends without a new levy.

Parent Amy Magnus wondered if the district anticipates any benefits to local schools from the American Recovery Act. She said she understood that “big-ticket items,” such as heating and cooling, electrical and plumbing, are covered by the legislation.

Superintendent Holden responded that the money had not been distributed, and it was unclear how much the district might receive. She wrote in the chat that she would share the district’s plan for the funds when the money is in hand.

Several participants questioned the cost estimates for renovation presented by the SHP representatives participating in the calls.

Projected renovation costs range from about $10 million for minimal repairs to over $30 million (similar to new construction) for major rehabilitation.

But David Diamond noted that such costs are difficult to pin down in advance.

“It’s not possible to know exactly what renovations will cost until you start opening walls up,” he wrote. “However, as anyone who has tried to replace just a couple of AC outlets in YS, we know that costs of renovation can snowball quickly.”

Naomi Bongorno added that repairs may just delay inevitable replacement needs — and add to the overall cost.

“How long do you expect the bare minimum work to last before we have to look into renovating/rebuilding again?” she asked.

Matthew Carson wondered if the multi-million dollar price tag might actually hurt the students that a new or heavily renovated school is supposed to serve.

“How many children living under the poverty line will be priced out of the district based on this increased cost of living?” he wrote.

Parent Naysan McIlhargey posed a suggestion concerning funding.

“I wonder if there is an option to shift more of this cost to income tax and less in property taxes? Hence helping folks who are on fixed incomes,” he wrote.

Considering K–12

The majority of participants in the forums appeared to actively support or at least not oppose the possibility of transitioning to a K–12 facility. Questions arose, however, about the master planning advisory process, which considered benefits of a multi-age setting and drawbacks in the current, separate buildings, but didn’t address the benefits of the current arrangement and what might be lost in making a change to a single campus. Other questions involved instructional models and community resources.

Amy Magnus asked district leaders to share more with the community about the educational effects of K–12 facilities.

“What pedagogical model in K–12 has the school considered?,” she wrote. “What case studies have been explored? How would PBL [the district’s project-based learning curriculum] change on a K–12 campus? Case studies?”

Superintendent Holden responded that the change would support and likely enhance PBL offerings, with more flexibility for large and small group interactions. The overall anticipated instructional benefits are more anecdotal, with students and teachers participating in the forums sharing excitement about the collaborative possibilities between classes and grades.

Members of the Educational Visioning Team, or EVT, one of the master planning advisory groups, also valued the collaborative opportunities that a K–12 facility would bring.

Related to a desire for more collaboration and sharing, and among the disadvantages the EVT has listed concerning the current buildings is a lack of display space for student work.

Local resident Terry Smith wondered, however, how big a concern a desire for more display space poses.

“Are classroom walls, hallway walls inadequate for displaying student work?” Smith wrote. “What about sharing work/collaborating with technology — such as with Padlet, FlipGrid, and in general classrooms joining international projects?”

Josephine Zinger, a student who participated in the educational advisory group’s work, said she feels the current layout of the schools is not conducive for the presentation of work, and that online platforms don’t get much use by students.

“The walls are taken up by decorations, maps, and other similar things,” she wrote in the chat. “There also is not a way to display sculptures and things like that. Also people don’t check FlipGrid, and it would be hard to see physical work through it.”

Forum participants also expressed curiosity about what building features, such as the library/media center, cafeteria and gym spaces, would be shared; and when, where and how grade levels would be separated. While such matters have been discussed by the advisory groups, specific design elements are not part of the master plan, according to district leaders. If a K–12 facility is recommended, and if voters approve a levy to fund it, then further details will be finalized afterward.

Attenders offered suggestions that supported the inclusion of a storm shelter; the repurposing, rather than the likely demolition, of the “spaceship” music room; the construction of a performing arts auditorium; and such wish-list items as a greenhouse, space for gardens and a recording studio.

Several participants expressed disappointment that the possibility of building a new K–12 facility on land currently owned by Antioch College was no longer an option being considered. The superintendent has said that the size of the 10.5-acre parcel did not meet the district’s needs, and that buying property when the district already owns surplus land didn’t seem financially prudent.

Amy Magnus indicated that the district might be missing out on a useful resource in affiliating in some way with the college.

“The science building is such a wonderful space,” Magnus wrote about the Antioch campus. “It’s a shame we couldn’t figure out how to share assets.”

Others, however, worried that Antioch’s long-term stability is too tenuous for the school district to count on.

And music teacher Brian Mayer questioned the appropriateness of young students on a college campus.

“Personally, as a teacher and a parent, I am more comfortable with K–12 buildings than … mixing minor children with 19- to 23-year-old adults, [which] would concern me a great deal,” Mayer wrote in the chat March 4.

Mills Lawn Elementary

Transitioning to a K–12 facility on the East Enon Road campus would mean leaving Mills Lawn School. And while many forum participants indicated that they support the change, others expressed deep loss at the idea.

“It would be heartbreaking to lose Mills Lawn where it is located now,” parent Kate Hamilton wrote of the school’s placement in the center of town.

“Our kids loved being downtown, and so did we,” her husband, Chris, added.

Amy Magnus agreed.

“Mills Lawn is a much loved campus,” she wrote. “It seems problematic to move in a direction to remove it from the school’s physical plant.” Its proximity to Glen Helen is one of its location’s benefits, she added.

The East Enon Road campus has its own attributes, noted parent Caryn Diamond, pointing to the new bike trail being constructed on the south edge of that property connecting to the nearby Agraria farm property.

Her daughter, Eve, wrote during the March 4 forum that she doesn’t consider nearness to the Glen to be a deciding factor for school placement. 

“As a student I feel a new building within biking distance of the Glen is more important than a building within walking distance.”

Fellow high schooler Josephine Zinger agreed.

“If there were to be a new building at [East] Enon[Road], Agraria could be the new ‘Glen’ for all the students, and is also much closer,” Zinger wrote. “The Glen is also accessible by bus and bike. … I would like to point out that no matter where you go in the town, everything is within at least biking distance, barely anything is inaccessible”

David Diamond agreed.

“I maintain that students can effectively go downtown from [East] Enon Road, particularly with the improvements planned under the Active Transportation Plan,” he wrote.

Others observed that the Glen has attributes not found at Agraria, and that younger students would have a more difficult time than high schoolers in biking there.

And others expressed support of keeping elementary students in the middle of town.

“Being in the heart of the community is very important,” wrote Meghan Calfee.

Naomi Bongorno, however, questioned the purpose of staying put.

“How does being in the heart of the community add to the kids learning on a regular basis?,” she wrote. “I’m not being snarky. I was also sad when I first thought about MLS moving, but I then realized that my attachment to the location of Mills Lawn was MINE, not my kids. Just my two cents and not saying that’s the case for [others].”

“I agree!” high schooler Zinger replied. “I like MLS a lot and it would be sad to leave the building, but isn’t it worth it for a better building that students can have a better learning experience in?” She added that her primary attachment was to the teachers, staff and other students.

Magnus and Hamilton said that the downtown location mattered to them for several reasons.

“PBL involves many interactions with businesses and offices downtown.” Magnus wrote.

“Our kids felt like they were part of a community because of the location,” Hamilton added. “They have gone to school in several other states and never felt connected to the community at large.”

Next steps

Chris Hamilton is among community members who wonder why the master planning process isn’t taking more time in gathering community input.

Superintendent Holden has said that the timeline was set to take advantage of the state’s 26% reimbursement offer. According to the program’s rules, the percentage amount is locked in for a year, after which the district expects it would be given a smaller amount, based on conversations with representatives of the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission.

According to Holden, moving forward with putting a levy request on the November ballot would allow the district to go back to voters in May, should the November issue fail, and still qualify for the 26% reimbursement.

Holden also anticipates getting a wider sense of the community’s feelings from the ongoing survey, the results of which she said she would share with the News.

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