ENDORSEMENT: Yes on Firelands schools Issue 7


William Howard Taft was president when South Amherst Middle School was built in 1910.

The building has had a good run, but its time as a center of learning is drawing to a close. That brings us to the levy that Firelands Schools wants voters to pass in order to build a new high school adjacent to the existing Firelands High School, which would become the new middle school.

The district proposed a similar plan for a new high school in 2008, which Superintendent Mike Von Gunten told us voters rejected. The Great Recession forced the district to delay plans to try again until the economy had shown signs of recovery, he said, and when it returned to voters three times in 2015 and 2016, it was with a more expanded plan that would have seen a new high school and middle school complex, along with a new field house, built.

Voters rejected that plan as well. It would have cost roughly $35.7 million when it was presented to them twice as a property tax levy and then as a combination property tax levy and income tax.

The message from voters, Von Gunten told us, was that the cost was simply too high.

The district has returned now with a 4.28-mill tax issue that would fund construction and maintenance of a new high school, but doesn't include a new middle school or a field house.

Although not as grand as a middle and high school combination would be, the new plan has the advantage of being somewhat cheaper.

The cost would come in just shy of $30 million. The Ohio Facilities Construction Commission has agreed to pick up almost $5.3 million of the cost, leaving the district responsible for the remaining nearly $24.5 million.

That cost would be covered through the bond issue, which would generate around $1.2 million annually over 36 years. Issue 7, as the measure is identified on the ballot, also includes a permanent improvement levy that would generate almost $160,500 annually. Although the bond issue portion of the tax would expire after 36 years, the improvement tax would remain on the books permanently.

Lorain County Auditor Craig Snodgrass' office reported that the 3.78-mill bond issue would cost the owner of a $100,000 home $132.30 per year. The 0.5-mill improvement levy would cost the same homeowner another $17.50 per year for a total annual cost of $149.80.

Although Firelands High School opened in 1954, it is far newer than South Amherst Middle School. Von Gunten told us the high school remains a viable option for middle school students, particularly once it is connected to a new high school building via a cafeteria and kitchen that would serve both buildings.

The middle school in South Amherst has a range of problems, including aging boilers and other HVAC systems, electrical issues and no elevator.

There is also the sizable issue of its septic system, which Von Gunten said the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency has ordered replaced at an estimated cost of $300,000.

If the district were to pass the bond issue, the EPA has agreed to grant a waiver on replacing the septic system to give the district time to build the new school. If the levy fails, however, Von Gunten said the district would be forced to spend the money on the new system.

There is one other factor that voters need to be aware of. Earlier this year, the Ohio Board of Tax Appeals ruled that greenhouse buildings no longer should be counted as real property for tax purposes, effectively cutting the taxable value of property owned by Green Circle Growers, which is in the school district, from around $40 million to roughly $10 million.

The decision centered on the ludicrous argument that because greenhouses can be moved, they aren't permanent structures. People also can move houses, but those still are counted on tax bills. Some of Green Circle's greenhouses have stood on the property for years, which in most people's minds would make them permanent.

Snodgrass told us that if the decision, which hasn't taken effect yet because his office is challenging it in the courts, stands, Green Circle would be due a refund of roughly $1.7 million, including $1 million from Firelands Schools.

Because of how property tax levies are structured, property owners in Firelands and elsewhere would see, in the absence of a substantial increase in the tax base as the result of growth, their property taxes rise to make up for Green Circle's reduced tax if the decision isn't reversed. Exactly how much that would be is impossible to say at this point.

It is a risk that voters should consider, but it doesn't negate the district's need to replace a building from a bygone era with numerous problems.

"It's just not conducive to education," Von Gunten told us, and we agree.

It is in the best interest of students to move the high school and middle school onto one campus and into the modern age of education. Voters should support that effort by casting their ballots in favor of Issue 7.

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