The need is real and the time to act is now

Over the last three years, working on the District Facilities Project, I have spent a considerable amount of time on this subject. Not only have I read all of the pertinent reports, I have toured all of our buildings, frequently starting in the boiler room and working [my] way up to the roofs, including the clock tower at Heights High. As such, with all of discussion and debate over the District’s Bond Issue, the following are items to take into consideration.

Historical Context

It has been 40 years since our last renovation program. If we move past the poor architectural designs, dated colors and poor placement of additions, and look at what was done in the 1970s, we find much of the work was cosmetic, failing to address serious systemic issues. By the mid-1980s, the programmatic shortcomings of the 1970s were becoming obvious, and by the early 1990s what was new in the 1970s was becoming worn, not to mention all of the mechanical systems that had not been worked on in that program. Since 1992, the District has had approximately $3.5 million a year to spend on repairs. At first blush this sounds like a lot until you consider that this money needs to be used on more than 1.25 million square feet of space—even more when basements, attics and other spaces are added in. That comes out to about $2 per square foot per year to spend on permanent improvements. 

Our current funds just allow us to keep the major problems at bay. Student safety and building envelope (roofs, basements, etc.) consume the overwhelming majority of the budget. Anything else—things that might save money, provide a better learning environment or just look good—those get added to a wait list, and that wait list keeps growing. In addition to all of the issues our buildings have as obstacles for education and being community assets, we are reaching a point where the cost of basic repairs will outstrip what [funds] the District has for these projects, meaning funds used for instruction will have to be spent on building maintenance. The longer we put off a systemic renovation program, the more money we spend on repairs and the higher the cost will be in the future to do what needs to be done. 

Peers

If the District does not embark on a systemic renovation program now, we will soon have the worst facilities comparable to our peers, no matter how you define our peers. Cleveland and East Cleveland have new buildings courtesy of the State of Ohio. Beachwood is finishing renovations of its high school, joining a new middle and elementary school. Orange and Solon have far newer buildings. Mayfield is completing a renovation program. Euclid, Maple Heights and Lakewood are in the middle [of], or completing, building programs. Shaker Heights, which has superior buildings and has maintained them better as well, is about to begin the same process. In short, we will soon have the worst facilities compared to peer systems, reducing our ability to attract students and residents who want to live here.

School Closings

Drawing a large amount of attention is the projected closure of buildings owing to declining enrollment. Of our elementary schools, Fairfax and Noble and projected to close—in 8 to 10 years.  Once the high school and middle schools are complete, then work will turn to the elementary schools. In our current timeline, we are five years away from planning the details of when elementary schools will close and the specifics of how we will handle renovations and construction at our five remaining elementary buildings.

Wiley is a different case, for it will close as a middle school but continue as swing space for Heights High, and Monticello and Roxboro middle schools for much of the next 6 to 8 years. The move to two middle schools is the result of declining enrollment. In the last 40 years, while our enrollment declined by more than half since its Baby Boom peak, we have closed four elementary schools and moved the 9th grade to Heights High, but we still have the same three middles schools we had then. We are reaching a point where we simply do not have enough students in grades 6 through 8 for the same classes, programs and extra-curricular offerings at each building. Regardless of the Facilities Plan, it is likely in the next few years that we would have to close a middle school.

Wiley is proposed to be used as swing space and then closed as a middle school for many reasons. Of the three [middle school] buildings, it has the least historical and architectural value, while also having the most adaptive reuse potential after closure. Between District use (the bus depot and Board of Education are on the site) and civic use (its front lawn is home to University Heights summer events and the track and field are next to the city’s pool and tennis courts), Wiley has far more ways to be re-tasked than the other buildings. 

Timeline

A key factor in this project is how quickly students, parents, the community and our region will see results. Within three years Heights High will be completely renovated. Nearly every addition added since World War II would be removed. The original building would be renovated, and smaller, energy efficient, compact new construction would eliminate all of the issues that plague Heights High. Science classrooms, designed when Sputnik was cutting-edge technology, would be replaced with ones built for the era of nanotechnologies. Classrooms whose electrical systems date back to when silent films were prevalent would be replaced with rooms for the era of tablets and smart boards. Athletic facilities that are an embarrassment when other schools come to compete would become showplaces and assets to be used by the entire community on nights, weekends and in the summer.

Unlike every other high school in the Heights-Hillcrest area, Cleveland Heights High School is the only one not in a campus setting, and it is located on two major arteries. This means the renovations and removal of the Science Wing have the added benefit of being marketing tools for the District. This can be completed in the next three years.

Following Heights High, the same work would be completed at the middle schools. Within six years all of our middle schools and high school students will have classrooms ready for the next 50 to 75 years. This is what we are talking about, the future for our community for the next half century. 

This timeline means that students will be inconvenienced for at most two years, many for just one year, and the youngest will not even know of the work being done, going from their elementary school to a renovated middle school and then a renovated high school.

Vacant Buildings

A valid concern is why is there a need to close more buildings when the District already has three closed. It is important to keep in mind that we are five years away from having to worry about buildings being vacant in five years. [Under] our current timeline we would not have vacant buildings to worry about until completion of the elementary school portion of this plan—ten years from now.

Focusing just on the use of closed buildings, not the operational savings and efficiencies, the District is using two of the three currently closed buildings and the third is in negotiations for third-party usage. Taylor has been repurposed many times, from the home of an alternative high school, to the temporary home to the CH-UH Public Library to now housing a number of District programs. Coventry is filling up as home to a number of nonprofits. The hope is to soon finalize a deal for Millikin to be used by a small, religious private school in the next few months.

We are at least five years away from having to think about having three more vacant school buildings. It will then be another five years (2023) before those buildings would close and we would need to find new uses for them—plenty of time to come up with ways to use these buildings and sites. There are a number of very exciting possibilities, but it is really too early for us to have a definitive plan. Few businesses or institutions can plan for their needs 10 years out. If anything, the long time horizon allows us to explore just about every idea and option and come up with the best plan for our community, not merely what is best at this moment in time.

The Facilities Project is the single greatest project in our community’s history, and through its direct and indirect impact, it will determine the future and fate of our cities. This is not about paint and carpet—it is about every mechanical system and space within the buildings. There is no back-up plan. What we currently do is the back-up plan, fixing what must be repaired and saving everything else for a sunny day that is unlikely to come. The plan before the voters is not a Cadillac plan, nor is it paint and carpet. It is a plan conceived and vetted by a broad cross section of our community and is designed to handle our needs for the next 50-plus years. The need is real and the time to act is now.

Eric Silverman

Eric Silverman served on the Facilities Assessment Committee, Facilities Options Committee and the Lay Facilities Committee. He was on the CH-UH School Board from 1994 to 2001 and the CH-UH Library Board from 2003 to 2009. At present, he is president of the Cleveland Heights High School Alumni Foundation and is a candidate for the CH-UH School Board this November.

Read More on Opinion
Volume 6, Issue 10, Posted 12:01 PM, 09.03.2013