CANCELLED: $35.5 million school project nixed

By Evan Goodenow -

New school’s out.

Bowing to public pressure, Oberlin board of education members have decided not to place a proposal for a $35.5 million pre-kindergarten through 12th grade school building on the November ballot.

Board president Ken Stanley said Monday there was substantial support for the project and with a large turnout expected for the presidential election, he was confident of approval. However, he said it was likely that many of those voting yes would be Oberlin College students who wouldn’t have to pay for the building.

“People tend to overestimate the number of students that do vote, but it’s there,” Stanley said. “I would hate to see this pass and then build a building without full community support.”

Board members have been discussing the project since 2008 due to the age of Oberlin’s schools. Langston was built in 1923, Eastwood in 1955, and Prospect and the high school were built in 1960.

They said 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 would save at least $1 million annually in electricity and maintenance costs.

They also noted enrollment in the 1,000-student district is expected to shrink to 945 by 2020, the year the school was scheduled to open.

Board member Barry Richard previously said it would cost $6 million less to build now rather than waiting until 2020 due to the current record low borrowing costs. Delaying the project risked getting less state taxpayer money to help pay for it, he said.

Had the proposal been approved, the state would’ve paid $5.9 million of the bill, Rick Savors, Ohio Facility Construction Commission spokesman, said Monday.

The local cost of the building would’ve been 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 initiative would have gone 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.

Oberlin residents and those who work here pay a 2.5 percent income tax and a 2 percent school income tax in addition to those who pay property taxes.

Increasing the tax burden was the primary criticism voiced by about 15 speakers at a June 7 board meeting attended by about 40 people.

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

Retiree Lester Morris said passage would hurt those living on fixed incomes.

“We’re tired of paying,” he said. “There is no more money to get from us old people.”

Ken Yancey called the proposal a “vanity project” of former Superintendent John Schroth who died last year from cancer. Yancey, a retired contractor, said the schools are in better shape than portrayed by board members.

“If you took the money you have and the schools you have, you’d do fine,” he said. “The school board is totally unresponsive to the needs of the voters.”

The board has estimated renovating Eastwood, Prospect and Langston 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, board members said. Renovation after demolishing Eastwood or Prospect would cost between $12 million and $35 million to meet commission standards.

Some speakers accused the commission of conducting biased school assessments in favor of building new to create more construction jobs. Savors said that’s false.

Savors said the state has a detailed 23-point assessment developed by experts in Ohio and nationwide. The assessment includes looking at the condition of a building’s foundation, roof, walls, and electrical system. “It’s a very objective look and it’s a very thorough look,” he said.

Savors said the “two-thirds rule” — the state won’t help pay for renovations costing two-thirds or more of building new — was designed to save local taxpayers money. Savors said many states won’t pay to renovate if it costs 50 percent or more of building new.

He said unexpected costs can occur during renovations. “We try to be sensitive to that,” Savors said.

This is the second straight year board members have discussed a levy before withdrawing it. Stanley said it’s a “distinct possibility” that board members will do more studying of consolidation and renovation.

“What happens now is we all take a deep breath,” he said.

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

By Evan Goodenow