Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Issue 11 would only finance phase one of the Oberlin City Schools master plan adopted in May. The money raised if the ballot issue is successful would only cover the cost of the first phase of construction. Additional funding from NEXUS pipeline revenues beginning in 2022, state funding, and possibly more tax money would be required to fund construction of a 6-12 portion.
A $17.7 million plan to build a new Oberlin public school campus is on the Nov. 6 ballot, though it’s proving divisive.
Issue 11 asks for 4.8 mills over 37 years that would generate $947,391 annually. If backed by voters, it would finance the first phase of a master plan for new Oberlin school facilities, starting with a PK-5 building.
The board of education is hoping you’re willing to pay $133 per year for every $100,000 worth of property you own to make that dream — which has been the subject of debate for a decade — come true.
The plan was debated Oct. 9 during an issues forum at Mount Zion Baptist Church, which was organized by the League of Women Voters of the Oberlin Area.
Oberlin school board member Barry Richard spoke on behalf of the bond issue and said it would ultimately save more than $3 million compared to an alternate plan to renovate Oberlin High School and Langston Middle School, then consolidate all district students into the two buildings.
“Some say that buildings don’t teach kids,” he said. “Some say our current buildings are good enough for them. We disagree. New school building designs are a gigantic leap forward compared to how buildings were constructed 50 years ago. They’re flexible and varied learning spaces.”
“Sure, consolidation is an option,” Richard said. “But after an extensive study, the numbers and displacement factor for students don’t add up. To fully renovate Langston into a PK-5 and the high school into a 6-12, it would cost $39.6 million and take three years of students being displaced during the renovation.”
Assuming Issue 11 passes, Richard said the PK-5 portion of the new campus could be occupied by students in January 2022.
But members of an opposition group called Oberlin Concerned Citizens say the measure places too large of a tax burden on residents and won’t solve problems such as the district’s low Ohio report card grades, bullying, and the loss of students to open enrollment.
“We have all voted for levies when asked for more money for our schools,” said resident Joan Webster. “After a careful study of many factors, Oberlin Concerned Citizens believes this levy is not the right option for the community at this time. We agree that four buildings are no longer practical but disagree on the solution. Despite numbers presented by the district, we have every reason to believe that we can downsize into two of our existing buildings for under one half the cost of the proposed new building.”
Members of the group were admonished by event hosts for passing out flyers and conversing with crowd members during Richard’s allotted speaking time.
“Compared to the other 13 Lorain County school districts, we already pay the highest expenditures per pupil,” Webster said. “Our tax burden is high. A study commissioned by the city of Oberlin in 2016 indicated that it’s already hard to attract new families to the area due to what they specifically refer to as our tax burden. Because of this and the lack of affordable housing, we’re losing economic and racial diversity. Unfortunately, we’re becoming a more gentrified and aging population.”
Original projections put the cost of building a PK-12 building at $43.3 million. However, state aid offers have taken the price tag down and a $3 million credit would be reimbursed after the entire project is completed.
The school district also expects to begin receiving tax payments in 2022 from Enbridge, the company now building the 250-mile NEXUS pipeline. Over a 30-year estimated pipeline lifespan, the schools expect to bring in roughly $22.4 million, which has been floated as a way to finance turning the proposed PK-5 building into a PK-12 building.
Richard said the district’s tax financing model is more nuanced than how it’s painted by Oberlin Concerned Citizens.
“Correct, we’re the highest in the state, but we did that by design,” he said. “We decided to cut property tax and go to an income tax based system as well. Currently, we’re at about 50 percent income tax and 50 percent property tax,” he said. “In terms of property tax itself, we’re the second lowest in the county for school property next next to Wellington.”
Jonathan Delozier can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @DelozierNews on Twitter.