An on-again, off-again proposal for a new Oberlin school is back on the agenda, the latest development in the school board’s nearly decade-long debate over replacing aging buildings.
This time around, a single PK-12 school seems to be the preferred solution.
It comes packaged with high up-front costs to taxpayers, while officials say it will deliver millions of dollars in long-term savings.
A new building would save the school district at least $1 million per year through reduced energy, maintenance, and personnel costs, according to an assessment by the state.
A school board tour of Eastwood and Prospect elementary schools gave rise to the discussion Sept. 12.
Board president Anne Schaum said fresh perspective is needed on the issue, which led to a vote authorizing a cost reassessment with community listening sessions to follow.
A broken dishwasher, overheated gymnasiums, aged boilers, unsealed windows, and broken playground equipment were the low-lights during the elementary school tours.
Tours of Langston Middle School and Oberlin High School will be made by the board as part of a public meeting at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 26.
The tours are part of efforts by the board of education to decide whether to close, consolidate, renovate, or replace school buildings. Board members say maintenance costs are growing with each passing year.
Langston was built in 1923, while OHS was built in 1960. Eastwood and Prospect were built in 1955 and 1960, respectively.
“Many times, districts spend money to renovate schools but they still have the same old infrastructure that is falling apart,” said operations manager Dan DeNicola, who has helped build 13 new schools during his career.
Eastwood principal Susan Alig said the dishwasher in the cafeteria kitchen is broken, so kids have been eating from foam trays. Treasurer Angela Dotson said replacement parts are no longer made for that model and a new machine would cost near $20,000.
Prospect, which board members have previously discussed demolishing if consolidation occurs or a new school is built, needs roof repairs and insulated windows, said principal Chris Frank. Improperly sealed windows increase heating costs.
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 the high school.
With enrollment in the school district decreasing — it’s down 14 percent since 2004 and predicted to drop another five percent by 2020 — some tour-goers questioned the wisdom of building a new school.
Nevertheless, DeNicola said resources and space could be used more efficiently with a one-school campus.
“When looking at your enrollment, you’re operating two schools too many,” he said. “Over the past 10 years, you’ve analyzed pretty much everything, and the obvious one for me is a K-12 building. It’s the most efficient, most economical to maintain, and allows for shared resources.”
Officials previously voted in favor of a plan that would have resulted in a $35.5 million school, saying it would save money in the long term. But under pressure last June from residents concerned about the price tag, they dropped the proposal from the November ballot.
The building would have been constructed on a 48-acre site by OHS, which would have then been razed. Prospect was also considered for destruction and Eastwood and Langston could have been sold to developers for multi-family housing.
If the board chooses to change course and pursue a two-building campus now, DeNicola suggested doing so in phases.
Separate PK-5 and 6-12 schools would cost an extra $3.2 million, board member Barry Richard said.
Resident Debbi Walsh balked at the cost. She said many taxpayers can’t afford the project in a district where 52 percent of of the district’s roughly 1,000 students live in poverty.
“I understand this will save money in the future, but I cannot afford to pay a huge cost upfront,” she said.
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.
Walsh also disagreed with board members’ contention that a new school building will draw more young families to Oberlin.
“It’s going to discourage people from moving here. People are already turned off by Oberlin’s high tax rate… Aging buildings are not what turn people away from the school district,” she said — high-quality, dedicated teachers are the key.
Resident Mary McKee said not everyone disproves of a new building. In favor of a one-campus model, she said she would have loved to see the issue on the ballot last year.
Laurie Hamame can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @HamameNews on Twitter.