School board hears Greenspace plan
- Published: March 9, 2022
A local group seeking to preserve about five undeveloped acres on the western side of the Mills Lawn Elementary School property presented a land conservation proposal earlier this month to the Yellow Springs school board, describing the plan as a “win-win” for the district and land preservationists.
District leaders, however, questioned whether the proposal is permissible under the Ohio Revised Code’s rules concerning public school property, while noting that imminent deadlines related to the plan make it unrealistic at this time.
Speaking on behalf of Citizens to Preserve Mills Lawn Greenspace during the community comments section of the school board’s most recent regular meeting Thursday, Feb. 10, Mary Eby outlined the group’s proposal as detailed in a letter sent earlier in the week to the district superintendent and each of the individual board members.
“While the entire Mills Lawn property is owned by the school district, in a broader sense the land is a shared community asset,” the group wrote in its letter. “The case for preserving the Mills Lawn greenspace is compelling. It is an open space in the heart of Yellow Springs with a rich history, many beautiful trees (including 33 mature tribute trees), and ongoing recreational, civic, and cultural uses. Many villagers consider the greenspace our ‘central park,’ as it enriches Yellow Springs’ sense of place and enhances residents’ physical and mental health and well-being.”
Basic to the group’s proposition is the acquisition of two state grants, coupled with private donations, to subsidize the sale of a conservation easement on the parcel of land in question. The grant funds would come from the state’s capital budget program and the Clean Ohio program, Eby said during her remarks to the school board. The application deadline in this year’s round of funding for both programs is March 18. The capital budget is on a two-year cycle, while Clean Ohio funding is an annual process.
“Each of these grants could bring significant revenues into the schools through the sale of a conservation easement,” Eby said. “We see this as a powerful win-win.”
She said the group has identified five “primary” benefits it believes could come as a result of acquiring an easement:
• The district could receive “full, fair market value of a conservation easement on this historical park-like piece of land.”
• “The schools could receive the funds as early as this fall.”
• Discussions about the future of district’s facilities “could move forward with the [Mills Lawn] greenspace off the table.”
• “Mills Lawn School would continue to use the greenspace as its school yard during school hours.”
• The parcel would be “preserved as green and open land for our community now and for the future.”
Eby said the citizens group “is willing to fund the appraisal, assist the grant writing and lead the campaign for the matching donations.” It hopes to see the district work with the locally based Tecumseh Land Trust, or TLT, in securing the proposed easement.
TLT’s executive director, Michele Burns, also spoke during the community comments section of the Feb. 10 meeting, explaining that certain steps need to be followed if the district wants to pursue an easement.
“Tecumseh Land Trust has its own process for evaluating and accepting land preservation projects, [and that] begins when we have a landowner who comes to us and asks for our assistance,” she said. “Because we have not had that, our entire board has not reviewed this proposal or taken a stand.”
Burns said that if the board decides “they want to go down this road,” they need to request TLT’s involvement. The land trust’s next board meeting is Feb. 28, she added.
While expressing concerns about the legality of the plan as well as the looming deadlines, the school board didn’t reject the proposal out of hand.
“There are a lot of positive points,” board member Dorothée Bouquet said. “I appreciate that they were mindful that they want to make the school district whole financially.”
She added, however, that she thinks the board needs to focus for now on the facilities issue before discussing the greenspace.
Board member Amy Magnus said that she would like to get some legal advice before considering the proposal further. While there are specific rules for selling property, “selling an easement is probably a very special case,” she said.
Luisa Bieri Rios agreed.
“I don’t want to rush the critical work that would be required,” she said, adding that she has some ethical concerns about some of the language in the proposal that seems to suggest “a this for that, an exchange of funds” that may be tied to a possible ballot measure.
“I agree with Amy that we need legal guidance,” Bieri Rios said.
In response to a caution from Treasurer Jay McGrath about the strict rules for selling district land, board member Judith Hempfling clarified that the proposal isn’t talking about selling the land.
“[We’d be] selling the development rights for the land,” she said. “What are the legal ramifications of that? I don’t know.”
Hempfling said she wants to find out, though. “There’s not enough time to meet that March deadline, but I would like for us to explore this kind of thing in the future where there is time,” she said, noting that the capital grant will be available again in two years.
“By then, we’ll figure out what we’re doing with facilities, presumably,” Hempfling said.
In a follow-up phone call with Eby this week, she said that the group was “heartened” by the board’s discussion.
“They definitely seemed open to look at it in the future, and we look forward to working with them on that,” Eby said, adding that the group, which includes local attorney and former Village Council member Laura Curliss, believes that the Ohio Revised Code does not disallow easements.
The district “would still be the landowner,” Eby said. “An easement would preserve the land and protect it from being developed, but it would not change the ownership.”
She said the group recognized that the March deadlines would be an obstacle, but they “felt a responsibility” to bring the information to the board.
In other school board business, Feb. 10:
District Treasurer Jay McGrath reported that revenue for the current fiscal year, which began July 1, is $43,359 under the projected budget, due primarily to a delay in the property tax payment that comes at the beginning of the new calendar year. At the same time, expenses are $591,007 under budget for the first half of the fiscal year. He also noted that a change in the state funding formula brought a higher than intended payment of more than $300,000 in January, but the amount will drop in subsequent months to make up for the overpayment.
Superintendent Terri Holden reported that positive COVID-19 case numbers in the schools have mirrored the rest of Greene County and elsewhere.
“They went up and up” in January, and now “our trend has really gone down,” Holden said.
She told the board that she, the building principals, the district nurses and Operations Manager Jeff Eyrich continue to meet each afternoon to discuss the effects of the ongoing pandemic.
“We look at all absences. We look at students we know have tested positive. We look at parent communication,” she said.
Given the decreasing case numbers, the district is making several changes to its protocols, she said. At Mills Lawn, students may now talk quietly with masks on after finishing their lunch; volunteers are again welcome in the schools, but must be approved by the board and show proof of vaccination; and field trips will resume, preferably outdoors, with principal approval.
“Masks are still required,” she added, but the administrators are considering making them optional.
“My hope is that after spring break we can be masks optional,” Holden said. “I really don’t believe we’re there yet. … But maybe in the near future.” She said she sympathized with the writer of a recent letter to the editor who noted that some children have never attended school without a mask.
“That’s hard,” she said.
Math pilot programs
Middle/high school Principal Jack Hatert reported that the high school will introduce a pilot program this spring that utilizes virtual reality goggles in the instruction of algebra and geometry.
The program focuses on “giving context” to math principles and is part of the school’s efforts to shore up students’ math skills, Hatert said. The school plans to eventually add science to the program’s instruction as well.
The superintendent said she has high hopes for the program.
“I think this really has the potential to change our math trajectory,” she said. Yellow Springs in recent years has scored below proficient in several math areas on the annual state tests.
Principal Hatert said the high school also has been accepted into a new Ohio Department of Education program involving three courses that allow students to “focus on real world math.”
Hatert said the pilot program is geared especially for students who do not plan to attend college, and the high school staff hopes to introduce it next year.
After a year in which instrumental students couldn’t meet as a group, the sixth-grade orchestra has returned to in-person practice and performance, Mills Lawn Principal Megan Winston told the school board. She reported that 22 sixth graders participated in a concert Jan. 19 in the middle/high school gym, where instrumental teacher Brian Mayer set up three separate staging areas and used a round-robin style of presentation. Winston said that the set-up not only helped spread out the players and audience members, but also provided an engaging format for the concert.
Representatives of Sinclair Community College’s Unmanned Aerial Systems, or UAS, program came to Mills Lawn last month and spoke to sixth graders about the program, drone technology and possible career opportunities in technology, Winston reported. She said each student had the opportunity to try a drone simulator with a laptop controller.
Career center update
Greene County Career Center board Vice President Steve McQueen, who represents Yellow Springs on the career center board, gave an update on the school. The current enrollment is 785 students, attending from the county’s seven public school districts, McQueen said, noting that full capacity is about 900. Thirteen students currently attend from Yellow Springs.
McQueen said that the school last year had a 100% graduation rate and a 90% rate for job placement, including internships. The previous 12 years had seen 100% job placement after graduation, he said.
Bouquet and Magnus, the board’s two representatives on the Yellow Springs Development Corporation, or YSDC, reported on the group’s most recent meeting, noting that the nonprofit is exploring its role and focus in the community.
“They’re really looking at where there will be good success and good buy-in from the community,” Magnus said.
Bouquet said that while she isn’t sure what she and Magnus can contribute as school board members in terms of community economic development, she feels that their presence on YSDC is valuable in providing “a platform to communicate” with other groups.
Bieri Rios agreed that such communication is important.
Hempfling suggested that YSDC members who represent an elective body consider their responsibility to their group.
“The development corporation requires a percentage of elected officials [as members],” she said.
“The question is: What exactly are they representing? Their group or themselves?”
Bouquet, who is also the school board’s legislative liaison, reported that the General Assembly is considering a bipartisan bill that would allow school boards and other elected groups to meet virtually until July 2022. She also reported that the state board of education is working on introducing a new state report card in the coming year.
The board approved the retirement of counselor and French teacher David Smith, effective July 1, and the resignation of custodian Steve Wilson, effective March 20. The board also approved a new paid supplemental position for a musical accompanist, recognizing the years that the role has been filled by a volunteer.
The board has scheduled a special meeting Monday, Feb. 28, to continue a discussion about district facilities that began during the Feb. 10 meeting and which was covered in last week’s News. The next regular meeting has been moved from March 10 to Thursday, March 17. Both meetings will be in the Graham Conference Room at Mills Lawn.