ELYRIA — School board members did not vote Wednesday night to alter the district’s master plan, a move that could change the number of schools constructed with more than $120 million in state and local funds.
The meeting, which was attended by so many residents that extra chairs were needed for the standing-room-only crowd, was the first time residents could voice their concerns since learning over the weekend that five new schools would be a financial stretch for the district.
“We need our school and my question is what is your remedy?” asked longtime resident Brenda Warren. “But I know this: Money can be found if we choose to find it.”
Warren said she voted for the November 2016 bond issue to fund the construction project to give all of Elyria’s youngest students the same accommodations that high school students now enjoy in their school, which is less than a decade old.
“I voted for the levy for all the children in the city, not just the children on the south side,” she said. “Now, I am very offended that our children have been considered ‘less than’ in the eyes of the people making these decisions.”
If the board sticks with the original five-school plan, the overruns could be in excess of $7 million. In an effort to cut costs, a proposal is on the table to build larger campus-style schools, one each on the city’s east, west and north sides. That proposal would mean all of Elyria Schools’ preschool through eighth-grade students would attend classes in consolidated but state-of-the-art buildings.
For some residents, that is a hard pill to swallow.
“The promise was made that if we voted for this levy, you will build five schools,” said resident Jim Sloan. “And I say that is a promise you have to keep. We kept our promise to you. We passed the levy. It’s time you do the same.”
Aric Bowens, a graduate of Elyria West High School who returned to Elyria to mentor kids, said the dynamics on the south side practically demand a school that can serve as a focal point in the community. He rallied the large attendance Wednesday night by going door-to-door and saturating social media with the meeting time and location.
“Things are not like what it was when I grew up,” he said of the south side. “When I grew up we had mentors, we had Little League South, we had the pool at South Rec and we had people who cared and role models.”
He encouraged school board members to look beyond the numbers and remember the children who have already lost so much in their community.
The proposed financial fix was to eliminate two kindergarten-through-fourth grade schools that originally were planned to go at the former Hamilton school site and at the Ely Elementary School location. However, after hearing from dozens of residents — those who did not formally address the board clapped, cheered and encouraged their neighbors and friends to speak — board members held off on voting, saying they needed more time to meet with consultants and evaluate every option.
“I am committed to working with the team to find a way to put that school where it belongs on the south side,” said board president Kevin Brubaker, who said he has fielded dozens of calls since Saturday from residents concerned about what losing a school in the area would mean for the city. While there is some concern about plans to forgo a new Ely Elementary, it is clear that the growing sentiment around the south Elyria school, which would be renamed McKinley Elementary, is that no school is not an option.
Brubaker said he has contacted state elected leader and continues to explore every avenue to build the school.
“I do believe there has to be a way to put a school on the south side,” he said.
With the Middle Avenue reconstruction project giving the area a new entryway, Elyria High School standing as a gem on Middle Avenue and the Elyria Public Library System eyeing the area for a new facility, a new elementary school would fit nicely in the area’s redevelopment, Brubaker said.
“You take that school out of the picture and you annihilate what is happening there,” he said.
But how did the district get here, especially considering how less than six weeks ago Superintendent Tom Jama stood before south Elyria residents at a town hall meeting hosted by Councilman Marcus Madison and raved about the new schools to come?
Paul Rigda, the district’s former superintendent that is a consultant on the project, said Elyria got swept up in the perfect storm of supply and demand. Issue 23 passed in Elyria, along with more than
$1 billion dollars in other school projects in the state. Couple that with increased material costs and changes to state law requiring heavy-duty storm shelters in all new schools, and you have a situation where Elyria’s project planned in 2016 no longer fits in the finances of 2018. Rigda said the district is facing an inflationary beast.
The state, more specifically the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission, which is covering up to 67 percent of the schools’ construction costs, will not chip in more money, said Bill Prenosil, the commission’s senior planning administrator.
“Our current policy is our budget is the budget,” he said.
The state funding agency favors reducing the master plan and because larger buildings are easier to build on budget, Elyria should build few schools in a shorter time to get the best prices possible, he said.
However, all the talk about budgets, costs overruns and fiscal responsibility had many residents in the audience questioning if the district is eyeing its coffers over its children.
“Today’s conversation is about our children and about the families living on the south side,” said Madison, the area’s city representative. “This decision will echo for generations to come in the streets of a neighborhood that has been working hard to transform itself into a neighborhood of promise.”
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