Last chance for Firelands construction vote

By Jason Hawk -

One last chance remains to grab $6.2 million in state cash to replace South Amherst Middle School and Firelands High before it’s pulled off the table.

The Firelands Schools have the lone issue on the Aug. 2 special election ballot in both Lorain and Erie counties.

Where big property tax questions failed miserably in November and March, this time educators are asking for a combination 3.61-mill property tax and 0.25 percent income tax to support construction of a new 6-12 school on Vermilion Road.

“I would think this would get more positive feedback from voters since we’ve taken into consideration aligning income tax with our younger voters,” said board of education president Ben Gibson.

The new proposal is meant to appeal to farmers, who have been hit in recent years by a doubled Current Agricultural Use Value tax, as well as elderly residents on fixed incomes, he said.

It asks working-age taxpayers — namely, those with kids in school — to shoulder more of the cost of a new building.

The district needs to secure $29.5 million from local voters in order to get the $6.2 million in “free” money from the Ohio Schools Facilities Commission.

That means convincing Firelands voters to pay an additional $11 per month for every $100,000 worth of property they own, plus a quarter-percent uptick in their Ohio taxable income.

Gibson said that even with the increase, Firelands would remain in the bottom 20 percent of districts when comparing tax rates. And a new building would mean more educational opportunities in the form of science labs, electronics, and classrooms better suited to modern learning.

The current buildings are plagued with any number of issues that need addressed, officials have said.

Asbestos has been isolated but would make renovations tough; many spots, especially at SAMS, aren’t wheelchair-accessible; drafts, bad windows, and ancient heating make for strange classroom weather; the buildings aren’t very secure by post-Columbine standards; and the district’s wastewater treatment plant at SAMS is all but shot.

The middle school is especially a concern. During a tour there this spring, teachers told us horror stories about brown water running from drinking fountains and chairs falling through the floor.

If the ballot measure fails to get voter approval, Gibson said SAMS and FHS will still cost taxpayers money in the form of repairs and upkeep.

FHS isn’t nearly as old a building but time has still taken a toll. For example, the Falcons gymnasium floor, installed 54 years ago, is falling apart. Replacement would cost in excess of $100,000.

But more disturbingly, the high school’s foundation and walls are cracking and separating — problems that won’t be cheaply fixed.

“We’re still maintaining the buildings. It’s just getting to the point where we’re sinking money into them… particularly the South Amherst building is a very, very old building,” he said.

The school board has explored the option of closing a building. That would almost certainly mean having to ask voters, though, for a levy to buy and set up classroom trailers outside “and that doesn’t make any sense, to go on the ballot for a temporary fix,” Gibson said.

Turnout will be key come Aug. 2.

School districts typically put money requests on November ballots because big fall races draw more prospective voters. Smaller elections tend to see more anti-tax sentiment.

Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.

By Jason Hawk