Firelands asks for new high school cash

By Jason Hawk -

A $30 million Firelands High School construction question will be on the ballot in November.

In a unanimous vote, the district’s board of education decided to go to voters with a 4.28-mill bond issue. If successful, it will generate roughly $24.5 million in local cash to match a nearly $5.3 million state contribution.

The plan is to build a 106,643-square-foot high school for grades nine to 12 on the Vermilion Road campus. It would be adjacent to the existing FHS, which would be converted to a 6-8 middle school.

The buildings would be connected with a common entrance for increased security. They would also share a kitchen and cafeteria, which would address “excessive repairs” needed at the FHS facility, according to superintendent Mike Von Gunten.

As a result, South Amherst Middle School on Rt. 113 would be vacated. Board of education offices there would also move to Vermilion Road.

Assuming voters like the idea, the new school would open in Fall 2021.

A parent-staff committee spent the past year hammering out the details of the plan based on feedback following three construction levy defeats since 2016.

Von Gunten said the committee learned district residents wants a smaller project that equates to lower costs. Specifically, they felt the existing high school should continue to be used rather than razed, as in earlier plans.

“People really felt that although our high school is certainly not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, they did feel like that could serve as a viable middle school for the time being and by connecting the two buildings there could be that campus feel,” he said.

“I feel like what we’ve heard in the committee and heard when I’m interacting with folks in the community, we’ve answered their requests,” he said.

The reality is that Firelands finds itself in a “do or die” situation, Von Gunten said.

Like an iceberg, most of Firelands’ facility problems are lurking just below the surface where they are invisible to most people, he said.

For example, the Environmental Protection Agency is lowering the hammer on the district’s septic plant. If the levy doesn’t pass, Firelands will be forced to pay an estimated $300,000 to $400,000 for a new plant by the start of the 2019-2020 school year.

“That’s a serious investment, and is that the best use of taxpayers’ dollars into a building where we know that’s just the tip of the iceberg?” the superintendent said. “Without a funding stream, those issues will kill our operating budget and we’ll be back on the ballot for our operating needs.”

For now, finances are in good shape, according to Von Gunten. There are renewals slated for 2020 and the school board anticipates asking voters for cash again in 2022, as predicted by five-year forecasts.

But “overall we’ve done a good job of containing operating costs as well as we can,” he said.

Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.

By Jason Hawk