Community voices opinions prior to tonight's school facilities vote
Antoine Hood speaks to board at July 16 forum
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At the July 16 Cleveland Heights-University Heights Board of Education special community forum, 18 Heights residents addressed the board. Three spoke in favor of the master school facilities plan, while eight expressed firm opposition. Others did not specify support or opposition to the plan so much as they shared concerns about it or the process. Many asked the board to take more time, and come up with a plan the community can support.
The board had called the special meeting to enable residents to comment on a proposed $130.6 million school facilities bond issue. At its work session on Tuesday, July 17, the board will vote on whether or not to approve a final resolution to place the bond issue on the ballot this November.
In her brief introductory remarks, Karen Jones, board president, noted that the process had included “one and a half years of talking with members of the community,” then taking “the most popular and practical ideas from those meetings,” and working with architects to come up with Plan C.
Jones then invited those who had signed in to speak, and said, “Remember, everyone in this room supports our kids. Please be respectful of each other and the board.”
Remarks were limited to five minutes per speaker. With the exception of Jones’s opening and closing remarks, board members did not address the approximately 75 residents gathered for the forum.
Several speakers voiced concerns that the board itself was not united in support of Plan C, as evidenced by the board vote on July 3, in which the board approved, by a 3-2 vote, a resolution to approve the district’s master facilities plan.
Kirsten Radivoyevitch said, “My main concern is, when you voted before, the vote was 3-2. That says to me no matter what you do, this is going to be unbelievably divisive. I don’t know how you’re going to overcome that.”
Reid Vail said, “I urge the board to please all get in line behind the same plan,” and noted that the “lack of unanimity could present difficulty in passing the levy. Not everyone in University Heights is opposed. I’m not opposed, but I urge you to come together on a plan.”
The cost of the plan was another concern to many of those who spoke. Charlotte Stein noted that she had lived in Cleveland Heights for 54 years, and questioned the ability of senior homesteaders—those who have lived here for 40 years or more, and are on a limited income—to afford the levy.
University Heights Mayor Susan Infeld was among those who asked the board to reconsider renovating buildings instead of rebuilding. She stated, “Every one of our schools needs major repairs. Times change, facilities change, facilities need to change. But $40 million [the current estimated cost of needed repairs to district schools] is a whole lot less. I would like the board to consider just renovating.”
Other speakers, both for and against the plan, agreed that CH-UH school facilities need to be improved.
Patrick Mullen, who described himself as “a parent on his 13th year of having children in the district,” urged the board to put the bond issue on the ballot, and said there is “a clear need to substantially improve the quality of space our children and teachers work in. Invest in our schools now. The longer we wait, the more repairs will be needed.”
David Tabor said, “I urge the board to move the issue to voters in November. It is such a big issue that if you don’t have questions or concerns, you aren’t thinking deeply enough. This investment will happen—the question is when. I don’t know if there is a perfect plan, but Plan C offers the community a good faith opportunity to decide with our votes, and that should be our next step.”
Several speakers characterized themselves as longtime supporters of school levies, but said they would campaign against this levy if it is placed on the November ballot.
Eric Silverman, president of the Cleveland Heights High School Alumni Foundation, urged the board to wait until 2013 to place a bond issue on the ballot, noting, “In the next ten weeks, the campaign has to do what is usually done in ten months. Over the next ten months, the board can build support for the plan rather than tepid resignation. Too many longtime supporters are inclined to vote no.”
John Hubbard said, “I have voted for every levy since moving here 14 years ago. When the right plan comes along, I’ll be campaigning for it. I’ll be campaigning against this plan.”
Sam Bell said, “I have never in my life not supported a school levy. It is very difficult to come to terms with maybe not supporting a levy. I can’t support this one.”
Another question speakers raised was the impact of new facilities on improving test results and positively impacting the education of children in the district.
Hubbard asked, “We have plans for pilot programs [to demonstrate learning communities]. Why are we not waiting for data before implementing the plan?”
Bell, while noting his opposition to the plan, said, “If you told me it would cost twice as much, but you could guarantee the results everyone in this community wants, I would campaign for it.”
Antoine Hood said, “I’m not opposed to putting money into schools, but am opposed to putting money into a plan that isn’t complete.” Referring to the planned learning community spaces, he noted, “They used [to teach] in a wooden building, with wooden desks back in the day.”
Jodi Sourini, incoming Gearity PTA president, said, “The design is unproven. With a little more time, I’m confident we can create a plan that includes what’s necessary to improve educational outcomes. We need to invest our money in what will give our children the best education possible. With a little more time, we’ll have results from the pilots and more information on whether or not flexible, self-directed learning works for our student population.”
Sourini, along with other speakers, suggested the master facilities plan approved by the board was a plan that no one was excited about. “No one seems to be speaking in favor of Plan C itself,” said Sourini. “No one is saying Plan C is great for our community. Our community deserves better than resigning ourselves to the plan no one likes.”
She added her voice to those calling for a delay, and said, “I believe the only prudent action is to delay putting the bond issue on the ballot until 2013, and to use that time to work together openly to created a plan that unites—rather than divides—our community.”
Dorie Nelson Hollis, outgoing Gearity PTA president, said, “Based on opening comments from Karen Jones and comments from other board members, it seems that the board thinks this is the community plan. It is not. Heights deserves better. Most disappointing to me has been the process—the communication, and the lack of district administration willingness to find compromise.
“Unfortunately, trust has been eroded. I feel the decision has already been made, and the district and board have not been transparent. Ms. Jones, when you said at a board meeting that people who don’t support the plan don’t support kids, I disagree.
“I want to fight to support the schools and it is breaking my heart that if this plan is put forward I will have to actively campaign against it. There are many of us who are willing to work with you if you are willing to delay.”
The last to speak was Mayor Infeld. She noted the impact to University Heights of closing Gearity, the city’s only elementary school, and said, “From studies, we know closing will have a direct impact on home values, and that will impact the district at large.”
In conclusion, Infeld expressed surprise that the board itself was not united on Plan C, and said, “I hope you will reconsider putting Plan C on the ballot. I know you have the best interest of the children at heart. Please consider the needs of the communities.”
Angee Shaker, director of communications for the district, commented after the community forum, “It was a very productive meeting. This is a decision the board members aren’t taking lightly, and they were taking notes. It’s always gratifying to see passionate community members making a case for what they feel is in the best interest of our children and community.”
Kim Sergio Inglis
Kim Sergio Inglis is editor-in-chief of the Heights Observer. She lives in the newly designated Shaker Farm Historic District in Cleveland Heights.