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School board OK’s new K–12 plan

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As anticipated, the Yellow Springs school board on Thursday evening, May 13, approved a facilities master plan to construct a K–12 school, with an estimated 40- to 50-year lifespan, on the district’s East Enon Road property, where the middle/high school campus currently sits. The projected cost is about $35.5 million, though the district expects an eventual state reimbursement of 26%, more than $9.2 million.

The vote came as part of the board’s regularly scheduled monthly meeting, which was held in-person in the Mills Lawn gym. Voting yes were board President Steve Conn, Vice President Aïda Merhemic and member TJ Turner. Members Sylvia Ellison and Steve McQueen were absent.

About 20 people were in attendance, with a majority there for the facilities discussion, including more than half a dozen members of a local group seeking to preserve the Mills Lawn School green space as a community park. No one spoke, however, during the community comments section of the meeting, at the top of the agenda, when the board opened the floor to the public.

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In presenting the plan to the board, Superintendent Terri Holden represented the evening’s action as a green light for moving forward with the K–12 construction option, but not approval of a ballot measure, which will include an as-yet-to-be-proposed bond levy. Other master plan options that had been under consideration included a combined renovation/new construction approach and several renovation proposals based on a range of priorities.

The superintendent has said she hopes to put a levy request before voters in November. On Thursday, she said the ballot date will need to be determined soon, as the district faces a deadline. Specifically, the promised 26% reimbursement is locked in for a year, after which any state co-funding will likely decrease, according to the district’s financial advisors.

“We need to know where we’re going,” Holden said of selecting a facilities option. “In order to proceed with the OFCC [Ohio Facilities Construction Commission], the board has to have an approved master plan.”

The OFCC is the source of the possible 26% reimbursement, if the district meets certain requirements and recommendations. Projected enrollment and the cost of renovation compared to new construction are among the most significant considerations for Yellow Springs. For a district of Yellow Springs’ size, the OFCC calls for a single building or campus. The agency also recommends that renovation costs fall under 66% of the cost to build new, and Yellow Springs’ needs do not meet that measure.

In the district’s last effort to pass a facilities plan, which failed at the ballot in May 2018, the board had decided to forego the OFCC reimbursement, which at the time was 17%, to pursue a phased renovation approach based on community input.

Holden said qualifying for the new, larger OFCC amount was a driving factor in discussions by the 41-member Community Advisory Team, or CAT, which along with a separate Educational Visioning Team,  began meeting in January.

The team meetings, like the three public forums held in February and March, were organized and led by representatives of the SHP architectural firm, which was hired by the district to help in developing the master plan. SHP also provided guidance to the advisory groups concerning OFCC regulations and construction/renovation needs and costs.

The CAT group, made up of parents, students, district administrators, business owners, civic leaders and district residents, met six times through the Zoom conference platform, eventually concluding that the K–12 construction on East Enon Road was the best plan, given the OFCC parameters, Holden said.

Summarizing their conclusions, Holden said participants felt construction was preferable to renovation, because “if we’re going to spend money, we [don’t want] to spend to renovate something that perhaps will be replaced” in the future.

She said the group also had “a pretty robust discussion about location.” They identified the 34-acre East Enon Road property as best after eliminating the Mills Lawn site as well as a potential parcel on the Antioch College campus as too small and inadequate to the district’s needs for a K–12 facility.

While the approved master plan includes a cost line for demolition of the Mills Lawn building, Holden said there is no plan to take such action. She said the plan takes into consideration the costs of possible scenarios, whether they will be taken or not.

Six of the CAT participants were in attendance at Thursday’s board meeting, and Holden invited them to share their thoughts if they chose. Three — parent Kineta Sanford, grandparent Abigail Cobb and the parent of alums Gary Zaremsky — spoke.

Sanford, who works with Home, Inc. and has been hired to teach at Mills Lawn next school year, said that “most compelling” for her was “hearing from the students and hearing about their needs and the needs of their fellow students.”

Their calls for greater accessibility was “the deciding factor for me … that new was where we needed to be headed, especially when we’re talking about more equitable schools,” Sanford said.

Cobb, who also served on the Facilities Task Force through 2019 and into 2020, said she was impressed by the care and thoughtfulness that CAT members put into their considerations.

“This wasn’t an easy or automatic decision by any means,” said of the group’s conclusion. “There was a great deal of love for Mills Lawn — a lot of emotion and sadness that went into that” recommendation to move to a K–12 setting.

Cobb said she believes that a new K–12 facility on East Enon Road is “the most sensible, practical thing for the district at this time.”

“Clearly some things will be lost, and other things will be gained and will open a new era in Yellow Springs,” she concluded.

Zaremsky said he has concerns about the cumulative costs of maintaining and fixing facilities that “are rather old and worn out.” The cost to meet immediate critical needs is an estimated $12 million, he noted. That could be followed by the need for another $5 million in five to 10 years, and more five to 10 years later.

“Ultimately, if you look at a 40-year timeline, the least expensive renovation approach [now] could be the most expensive” over time.

The master plan’s lead architect, Todd Thackery, of SHP, was also on hand Thursday, and answered questions from board members.

Board President Conn asked Thackery about the source of the projected cost figures.

Thackery said that the OFCC estimates the numbers based on “building hundreds and hundreds of school buildings across the state for the last 20 years.”

He characterized the agency’s figures as “reliable, conservative, not extravagant numbers.”

Construction costs are currently “very volatile and very high,” he noted, “but traditionally these [amounts] don’t go on forever.” The expectation that costs will stabilize is also a part of the OFCC’s calculations, he said.

Asked about the environmental benefits of new construction, Thackery said that under the OFCC oversight, new buildings have to comply with LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] gold certificate specifications, which will eventually lead to “energy savings” for the district.

Conn also asked the superintendent to speak about the benefits she sees in transitioning to a K–12 facility. Holden listed financial consolidations and pedagogical opportunities.

“Educationally, for me, there’s no question,” Holden said. “We can do some interesting curricular things.”

The News will continue to follow the school facilities issue; in addition, other business from the May 13 meeting will be covered in a future edition of the paper.

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