District Moves Forward with School Construction

Oliver Bok, Editor in Chief

The Oberlin City School District is taking the next step in its plan to build a new elementary school in place of the current Oberlin High School football stadium.

The school board and district administrators are currently assessing how much the construction project will cost. If the school board decides to go ahead with the project, in January the district will finalize the terms of a bond meant to fund the new school. In May 2015, residents will vote on whether or not to approve issuing the bond. If the bond passes this spring, a year-long planning process would begin immediately following the vote.

Construction would then start in May 2016 and last 12 to 18 months, according to Superintendent John Schroth.

“We’re hoping by the 2017–2018 school year we’ll be in this new building,” he said.

After the elementary school is finished, the district also has plans to build a new high school and middle school on the site of the current high school, thus placing all of the district’s schools on one campus.

While the project is still in its preliminary stages and many details have yet to be finalized, Schroth estimated that the elementary school would cost roughly $16 million and the high school and middle school would cost $30 million, so the overall price tag would be “somewhere in the neighborhood of $46 million.”

However, according to Schroth, the timeline for the new middle school and high school is entirely dependent on when the state of Ohio provides funding.

“It really depends on when they come through with the money. It could be five years; it could be seven years; it could be ten years. We would be positioned to move ahead as soon as that money becomes available,” Schroth said.

The reasons behind the construction plans are both educational and financial, Schroth said. He also said he believes that Oberlin’s current school facilities are not well suited to contemporary methods of educating.

“These buildings were designed for the way we were teaching kids in the ’40s and ’50s, not the way we’re teaching kids today,” Schroth said. “We don’t have dirty spaces. We don’t have places where kids can work on physicalprojects — modeling, painting, that kind of thing. It’s really designed for traditional, seatsin-a-row education,” he said.

The plans for the new elementary school include several atriums and many places for students to work in small groups, in contrast to the district’s current facilities which for the most part only contain traditionally sized classrooms.

The district also wants the new elementary school to be carbon neutral. The new school will have solar panels on the roof and will be designed to take advantage of as much natural lighting and heat as possible. The woods directly behind the school will be thinned and turned into a park with a bike path and an outdoor classroom.

Aside from educational and environmental concerns, the district’s current facilities are also increasingly expensive to maintain, said Schroth. According to a study done by the Ohio School Facilities Commission, it would be more expensive to renovate the city’s existing schools than build new ones.

“When these buildings were built in the’50s and ’60s, the school district had at its top about 1,600 kids,” Schroth said. “So we’ve lost 600 kids or so since that time. But we haven’t changed our buildings at all. So not only do we have four buildings that are over 60 years old — in some cases almost 100 years old — we also have currently about 250 square feet per student, which is a lot of space. The average in Lorain County is 150 square feet per student. We’re living in a really big house, a big old house with lots of bedrooms, and we don’t need half of them currently. With these old buildings it’s becoming more and more expensive to pay for repairs.”

As a result, the district had already run out of budgeted maintenance funds for the year before Oberlin voters approved an increase in property taxes earlier this month to provide the district with an additional $1 million in maintenance funds.

According to Angela Dotson, the treasurer for the district, the five-year forecast for the district’s finances is positive. Income tax receipts are higher than expected, and the district recently saved 15 percent in family health insurance premiums by requiring that employees whose spouses have health insurance use the district’s health insurance as their secondary source of insurance instead of primary.

While the five-year forecast was for the district’s general fund, which is not connected to the funds for the new construction project, Dotson said that the district’s financial health will make it easier to raise money for the new school.

“Should we pass a bond levy in May, the district will have to be rated through a standard type rating system,” she said. “The district is not currently rated. The way we spend our money will impact that rating, which will impact how the bonds are rated and our ability to sell them.”

Aside from the bond, the new school construction will also receive funding from the Ohio School Facilities Commission, which Schroth expects will cover 20 percent of the cost of building the high school and middle school. The district was set to receive that funding earlier this year but ultimately lost out to other Ohio school districts that are also planning construction projects amid the recovering economy and low interest rates.

The planning stages of the new project are being closely watched by one group of Oberlin residents: the Oberlin Community Benefits Coalition, a group of residents and community organizations devoted to promoting the use of a diverse and local workforce in local construction projects through Community Benefits Agreements.

“We are going to be looking for a certain percentage of the workforce to be local. … We’re going to ask for a certain percentage of people being employed locally for the Oberlin school district and another higher percentage for Lorain County,” said Arlene Dunn, a co-chair of OCBC. “We’re also going to be asking for some minority business owners and female business owners. We’re looking to try to require local purchasing of materials. We’re looking to be local. We want to impact the local community in a positive way instead of just letting the contracts out to Toledo contractors or Cleveland contractors,” she said.

Dunn and Ruth Palmer, also an OCBC co-chair, said that they had had discussions about a potential CBA with school district officials and would continue to discuss the matter with them as the school project goes forward. They also said that their support for the ballot question in May would depend on how serious the school district is about using local labor.

“If we have people who are hired from Oberlin, who live here, when they get their salary they are going to spend their salary in Oberlin. … And this is important because this makes money go around in our community. It is economically sound to have this kind of an agreement. It’s fiscally responsible to keep the money in town,” Palmer said.

When asked about using local labor in the construction process, Schroth said that while he was in favor of a CBA, it might not end up being possible due to state legislation and the fact that the district is at least partially relying on state funding for the project.

“I try to use local contractors whenever we can,” he said. “One hurdle for this is that it’s really not — when you get right down to it — it’s not our project. It’s a state project. So the Ohio School Facilities Commission essentially takes control over this once the planning part starts up. And they do not like CBAs. In fact there is legislation against having CBAs in place. Once we get through May we’ll start working with the state, figuring out how we can get around that, how we can use as much local labor as possible on this contract while still working within the state guidelines.”