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Yellow Springs School Board

School board to hire Ruetschle Architects facilities improvement design

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The school district’s facilities improvement project — particularly its timeline for both design and construction — was the topic of focus at a special meeting of the school board Wednesday, Jan. 24.

The board also approved an advisory committee that will explore aspects of the project’s design related to environmental efficiency and sustainability, as well as a contract with Ruetschle Architects — which worked with the district to develop the facilities project’s master plan before it was approved by voters last November — to serve as the design professional for the project.

Facilities project timeline

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As the News has reported in the past, the facilities improvement project’s preliminary master plan includes renovation at Mills Lawn Elementary School and a combination of renovation and new construction at McKinney Middle and Yellow Springs High schools.

Mills Lawn will be restructured as a pre-K through fourth-grade school, and upgrades will include repairing the exterior of the building and full systems replacements; deep renovations for some classrooms and restroom facilities; and renovation to create new offices and a secure vestibule at the school’s entrance. The modular band room will be demolished; it will no longer be needed at the elementary school when fifth and sixth grades move to the East Enon Road campus — as laid out in the master plan — as the local band program begins in fifth grade.

Grades 5–12 will be housed at the East Enon Road campus where the middle and high schools are now located. The schools’ current band room, the modular middle school wing and the facility’s current three-story “tower” portion are slated to be demolished.

A new secure vestibule entrance and offices are planned, as well as a new band room; two new building sections to serve as middle school (grades 5–8) and high school (grades 9–12) wings, connected by the current media center and cafeteria; and a new, larger gym for middle and high school use. The campus’ original 1963 gym and surrounding classrooms will be renovated, with the gym to serve fifth and sixth grade students in physical education classes and as an auditorium for performances; hardening the walls of the gym so that it can serve as a storm shelter is also planned. In addition, parking areas and pick-up/drop-off locations at the campus are slated to be updated.

Mike Ruetschle of Ruetschle Architects said during the meeting that the next year of planning by the district and its hired contractors will be devoted to refining the preliminary master plan and finalizing elements of the facilities project’s design. According to a timeline laid out by Ruetschle, construction is set to begin in 2025, with a projected completion in July 2026, ahead of the 2026–27 school year.

Ruetschle also pointed out that the school board in nearby Fairborn — which has recently completed construction of new elementary and high school facilities — approved the construction of a new middle school in the last month.

“We recommend we get out ahead of [Fairborn],” Ruetschle said. “We have a similar pool of bidding contractors, and the quicker we can get to them, it’s going to help choice and competition in this project.”

With that in mind, Ruetschle also recommended performing asbestos abatement this summer ahead of the 2024–25 school year, while students are not in school, which he said would give the district a “head start” on constructing the project. In addition, he recommended that the district bid this spring on modular buildings to be used by middle school students while the East Enon Road campus’ modular middle school wing is demolished. Bidding in spring would ensure that modular buildings are ready and in place by January of 2025, when demolition and construction are slated to begin.

“So the students can move into the modulars over winter break, and that gives us the space in that building to start renovating right away,” Ruetschle said.

He added that renovation and construction will take place at both Mills Lawn and the East Enon Road campus concurrently, using the same contractors.

Board Vice President Rebecca Potter noted that, according to Ruetschle’s timeline, student and staff feedback on major design elements for the project — for example, overall layout and numbers and arrangement of classrooms, which Ruetschle called the projects’ “big moves” — will need to be completed by March 29.

“Is that enough time — two months, eight weeks?” Potter asked.

“Yes,” District Superintendent Terri Holden responded. “We have very competent and skilled principals, and they have been intimately involved in this.”

Holden added that the YS Education Association — the district’s teachers’ union — had made a formal request that day to be involved in giving feedback during the design process.

“They are absolutely critical at the table,” she said.

Potter also asked if the allotted two months would be adequate time for community members to weigh in on public-facing aspects of design, including secure vestibules and sporting and performing arts spaces.

“Would you be able to absorb that planning phase in the second half of 2024?” she asked.

Ruetschle responded by saying that the district would need to contract a construction manager at-risk, or CMR, to work alongside the design firm before that would be clear; the district is set to receive requests for qualifications from CMR firms by Feb. 2.

Board President Judith Hempfling asked if two additional months for input on design elements from the community, as well as from students and district staff, would delay “next steps” for the design firm.

“There are months of work that went into what has been developed so far,” Ruetschle responded. “That’s what makes me confident in the schedule. … But if there’s a desire to stretch out the front end of this, that’s not a deal-breaker.”

“How confident do you feel about the schedule that you’ve drafted that you’re presenting today?” board member Dorothée Bouquet asked.

“One-hundred percent,” Ruetschle answered.

Facilities advisory committee

The board also spoke about a facilities advisory committee, which it later unanimously approved, with the described purpose of providing guidance on “energy-efficient systems, their immediate cost compared to life-cycle cost; renewable energy and innovative ways the project may be part of the local renewable energy system; [and] developing the questions to ask the architectural and design team regarding this aspect of the project.” 

Members of the committee, as approved by the board, will be Lisa Abel, Robert Brecha and Kim Reichelderfer and board members Amy Bailey and Potter, the latter of whom will serve as the committee’s chair. Abel and Reichelderfer are both engineers, and Brecha is a professor in the field of renewable energy.

Before the committee was approved, Bouquet asked that members of that committee not communicate directly to the architect, CMR or “any third-party vendors or service providers,” and instead funnel communication through district administrators. Bouquet cited an experience with the Facilities Committee that advised the school board in the lead-up to the facilities levy, in which a member of that committee reached out directly to the district’s maintenance plan advisor, or MPA, with a request, which she said changed the nature of a report presented by the MPA.

“So one of the first reports that we got [from the MPA] was not what we expected,” Bouquet said. “We were all disappointed. … I’m trying here to provide a frame so that we don’t run into that issue and we have a smoother process.”

Potter responded that she hoped the members of the board would “trust each other” to communicate appropriately, and that she would agree to Bouquet’s request.

Bouquet also expressed concern that the advisory committee could duplicate work that will be undertaken by the design team, citing a line item in Ruetschle’s contracted services that will include possible design of a solar energy system or other renewable energy systems.

“What will the [committee] do that is not already offered on the contract?” Bouquet asked.

“I would say that [Ruetschle Architects] are going to bring us great ideas — let’s get the expertise that we have in the village to look at those ideas and give their feedback,” Potter responded. “I see this as a win-win.”

Contract with Ruetschle approved

As its final business of the meeting, the board voted to approve the contract for Ruetschle Architects as negotiated by district administrators.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Bouquet said of the district’s relationship with Ruetschle thus far.

Board members all spoke to a good working relationship with Ruetschle and the quality of his proposal — however, board approval of the proposal was fraught.

Prior to the board’s vote, Potter asked Ruetschle about the fee for his services compared to past projects his firm has worked on, and began to suggest that the firm lower its pay percentage by a half-percent based on those past projects. The suggestion was halted when Superintendent Holden said she was uncomfortable with negotiating the firm’s contract “during a live board meeting,” particularly after district administration had already negotiated with the design firm on the board’s behalf.

After questions from the board on the appropriateness of contract negotiations in a public meeting, Ben Hyden of the board’s legal counsel firm, Bricker Graydon, said the board was unable to go into executive session to discuss further negotiation.

District Treasurer McGrath later added: “At our last regular board meeting, we passed a resolution that authorized the superintendent and our legal counsel to enter into negotiations with Ruetschle for the price, which is what they did.”

Hempfling noted that the board was originally scheduled to vote on the contract with Ruetschle at a special meeting two days prior on Monday, Jan. 22, but that it had pushed back the vote because board members had received documentation on those negotiations the same day, several hours before the meeting.

“People work, people go to school, who are on the school board and did not have time to do what is our responsibility, which is oversight,” Hempfling said. “The impetus to say we’ve got to do our due diligence, I really do appreciate it. I will say this: I intend to vote to hire Ruetschle Architects tonight.”

Potter declined to propose an amendment to the contract with Ruetschle Architects, but expressed her concern that the board “not only consider the speed [of the project], but the financial costs, and do our best to address those costs as aggressively as we can to get them as low as we can, while still providing the schools our children deserve.”

McGrath noted that he had not received requests from board members to clarify any portion of the contract in the two days between the two special meetings, though Potter responded that she had reached out to the superintendent that day. Hempfling halted this line of discussion by calling the board to order, saying those present had “discussed it enough” and moved for a vote.

The board ultimately voted to approve the contract with Ruetschle Architects, 4–1. Potter was the lone “no” vote, though she clarified that her vote was not a “reflection on [Ruetschle’s] proposal.”

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