Residents say they can’t afford $35.5 million building

By Evan Goodenow -

Barry Richard

Rosa Gadsen

A $35.5 million school building project received conditional approval from Oberlin board of education members Tuesday to go on the November ballot.

The vote came despite about 15 speakers denouncing the proposal at a board meeting attended by about 40 people.

The local cost of the building would be paid with a 3.81-mill, 37-year property tax costing the owner of a $100,000 home an additional $132 annually; and a 30-year, 0.50 percent income tax costing $204 annually for a worker earning $40,000 yearly.

The construction initiative will go on the ballot as a 4.81-mill levy to meet state borrowing requirements, but board members say they would only collect 3.81 mills.

State taxpayers are expected to pay about $5.9 million of the cost with reimbursement beginning in 2019 or 2020, although board members say that figure isn’t guaranteed.

Opposition was primarily due to the cost.

“We cannot afford this,” said Diana Steele, a 52-year-old resident who said she has voted for every school levy since turning 18.

Despite the opposition, board members Albert Borroni, Barry Richard, board vice president Anne Schaum, and board president Ken Stanley voted to have the Lorain County auditor’s office certify the levy. Board member Rosa Gadsen voted no and said after the meeting that she wanted more specific numbers on consolidating or renovating Oberlin’s schools rather than replacing them.

“I’m going to dig a little deeper and see what I (can) see,” said Gadsen, who told the News-Tribune she was pressured by constituents to vote no. “Then I’ll make my decision based on that.”

The board has estimated renovating Eastwood and Prospect elementary schools and Langston Middle School would cost between $15 million and $43 million to meet Ohio Facilities Construction Commission standards. The estimate doesn’t include Oberlin High School.

Consolidation from four to three buildings would save $340,000 annually, according to the board. Renovation after demolishing Eastwood or Prospect would cost between $12 million and $35 million to meet commission standards.

Project supporters say it’s costly to maintain aging buildings.

Langston was built in 1923, Eastwood in 1955, and Prospect and the high school were built in 1960.

They also note enrollment in the 1,000-student district is expected to shrink to 945 by 2020. They say constructing a 136,000-square-foot building by the high school on North Pleasant Street rather than maintaining 254,000 total square feet of schools will save at least $1 million annually in electricity and maintenance costs.

The pre-kindergarten through 12th grade school would open in 2020.

Board member Barry Richard said overhead for four schools is too high and it would cost $6 million less to build now rather than waiting until 2020 due to the current record low borrowing costs.

Richard said board members have been fiscally prudent and were sympathetic to the plight of residents who pay a 2.5 percent city income tax and a 2 percent school income tax.

“It’s a huge decision to make and we don’t take it lightly,” he said. “I live here.”

While board members have been discussing the project since 2008, opponents urged them to delay putting the proposal on the ballot. They said a November vote would be unfair because many Oberlin College students are expected to vote in the presidential election. “You’ll have an illegitimate vote,” said resident Bob Morrison, who proposed a February election.

Other complaints were about increased traffic at one school and having students of all ages in one building. A final vote on placing the proposal is scheduled June 28.

Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @GoodenowNews on Twitter.

Barry Richard Richard

Rosa Gadsen Gadsen

By Evan Goodenow