School board moves to place facilities bond issue on November ballot
At its July 3 meeting, the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Board of Education moved closer to putting a school facilities bond issue on the November ballot. The board voted 3-2 to approve the master facilities plan created by the district administration (Plan C). The board also voted 3-2 to pass a resolution declaring the necessity of placing a $130.6 million school facilities improvement bond on the November ballot. Board members Karen Jones, Eric Coble and Nancy Peppler voted in favor of these issues. Ron Register and Kal Zucker cast the dissenting votes.
The board passed three other issues relating to the school facilities bond. A resolution declaring that the CH-UH district is a “Special Needs District,” which enables the district to have a higher debt limit than the state standard 9 percent, passed 4-1, with Zucker casting the dissenting vote. A resolution authorizing the district to join the Ohio School Facilities Commission’s (OSFC) Expedited Local Partnership Program, the state program for funding the renovation and replacement of school facilities, passed 4-1, with Register casting the dissenting vote. The board unanimously passed a resolution to set aside one half mill to fund the maintenance of facilities built or renovated under the program, as required by the state. “We already meet the requirement,” said Steve Shergalis, building services director for the district.
In remarks to the board during the public comment portion of the meeting, Eric Silverman, president of the Cleveland Heights High School Alumni Foundation and former school board member, characterized the plan as “a vague plan funded by a series of guesses wrapped in misrepresentation,” and said he would not support it. “This is the wrong plan at the wrong time with dubious funding,” said Silverman. “It is better to wait for a plan that people are excited about rather than one that the community is resigned to.” He also urged the board to be unanimous in its decision before moving forward. “This decision is too important,” he said.
In his report to the board, Superintendent Doug Heuer said, “The OSFC has called this the most comprehensive plan and transparent process they have witnessed.” He stated that the plan addressed each of the 14 criteria set forth by the community during the community engagement process, that it appropriately downsizes the district and addresses all needed building repairs.
“The plan will ultimately take each student out of what the OSFC has said are ‘marginal’ buildings and place them in buildings with good acoustics and lighting, which is especially important for the 50 percent of the CH-UH student population that is ‘at risk,’” said Heuer.
Heuer stated that, with the plan, there will have been five closings of elementary schools in the district over the last decade; four in Cleveland Heights and one in University Heights. “Each closing represents a loss, but overall the closings are a proportionally equivalent loss to both [cities],” he said.
He added that the plan is educationally aligned with the state of Ohio’s core curriculum, teacher certification and the recently passed third grade reading guarantee.
Heuer further added that the projected budget for the project is reasonable. He compared the scope of the CH-UH plan to that of Lakewood, which was initiated 10 years ago. “If the projects were begun at the same time,” he said, “the CH-UH plan would cost $25 million less than Lakewood’s.”
Heuer urged the board to approve the facilities plan, stating that it “will yield significant improvements in student learning for all students.”
In stating her reasons for supporting the plan, Board President Karen Jones said, “If not now, when? Prolonging the decision will only lead to another 40 years before the district makes major improvements to its facilities.”
“A ‘no’ vote is not a vote against the board of education or the administration, but a vote against our children. A ‘no’ vote is a vote against our communities,” she said.
“I really have listened to people,” said Board Member Nancy Peppler. “It is my strong belief that our children deserve better facilities and that better teaching and learning will follow.”
“It has been 40 years since we’ve taken a hard look at what needs to be done,” said Board Member Eric Coble. “Every 10 years we choose another school to close. This process is an opportunity to make something new.”
Coble stated that the fact that the facilities plan will be a 10-year project will give the community breathing room. “There seems to be consensus on the high school and middle schools,” he said. “This gives us time to reevaluate phase two and time to engage with community leaders.”
“This is our generation’s turn,” said Coble, “I don’t know if the community will support it. I know we will make our case.”
In explaining his ‘no’ vote, Board Member Kal Zucker said, “We truly ran out of time. When the timeline dictates the process, we lose trust from our community. There is support for a facilities plan, but not for this plan.”
Zucker said that there is enough confusion over the plan and factions against the plan that he doubted it would pass in November. “There is no sense of excitement or enthusiasm and there is a lack of trust,” he said. “There is a large cadre of longtime school supporters who are against it.”
Zucker also stated that he thought the price tag was too high. “More than one third of the budget is based on unsecured funding,” he said.
“The plans changed too much in a short period of time,” Zucker said. He stated that the district didn’t answer the question about how it would repurpose closed school buildings and that there was an incomplete cost/benefit analysis. “We are changing the basic structures of these buildings,” he said, “which necessitates comprehensive professional development, which will cost money.”
Zucker said he was voting no because the district needed more time to hone its plan and its message. “I do not believe that this is the plan or that we are ready to ask the community to support it,” he said.
Board Member Ron Register, who also voted no on approving the master plan and putting the bond issue on the ballot, said, “Although I believe that we need to do something with our buildings, I am concerned about communications. We haven’t explained how we moved from plans A and B to plan C. Communication is significant and important.”
He stated that although he had seen a couple of articles about 21st-century learning communities, he wasn’t entirely sold on the concept. “We will have to solicit this money from the community,” he said. One positive thing about the process, he said, was that “it stimulates us in being in dialogue and communications with each other.”
The next school board meeting will be held on July 17. At this meeting, board members will vote on the millage and final ballot language for the bond issue.
Deanna Bremer Fisher
Deanna Bremer Fisher is executive director of FutureHeights and publisher of the Heights Observer.