During a special meeting May 22, Whitehall school board members unanimously voted to participate in the Ohio School Facilities Commission assistance program to build new schools, and will move forward in planning for a fall ballot initiative.
Superintendent Judyth Dobbert-Meloy and board President Walter Armes noted there is a lot of work to do before a bond issue goes on the ballot in November.
The commission will expect a master plan in June. A board meeting is tentatively scheduled for May 29 at 7 p.m. in the administration building for a master plan on building configuration.
Since January, individuals, businesses and schools have hosted informational coffees to explain the process of obtaining state assistance and the local costs involved if Whitehall were to build all new schools.
The state would pay 61 percent of the costs, with Whitehall residents fronting the 39 percent through a bond levy.
Armes said he feels comfortable that every effort has been made to involve the public in the decision to go forward, as opposed to surprising them in November asking for money.
At the public forum on May 14, building configuration possibilities were distributed for input. The top three choices follow:
•1 – Three elementary buildings for pre-kindergarten-5; One middle school for grades 6-8; One high school for grades 9-12
•2 – Two elementary buildings for PK-5; One middle school for grades 6-8; One high school for grades 9-12
•3 – Three elementary buildings for PK-5; One middle school for 6-7; One high school for 8-12.
The most unpopular option was two elementary schools for PK-6, and a campus for 7-8/9-12. Parents were concerned about younger children being placed with the older ones, even though they would be in two separate areas.
The most popular choice reflected a "comfort zone" since that is the district’s current configuration.
If there were to be two elementary schools, then it would be decided how to divide the student population, along with busing issues. The most likely schools to be combined would be Etna Road and Kae Avenue elementary schools, since they are on the same side of town.
Tony Schorr, of Schorr Architects, presented several options for a master plan.
The sensible choice would be to do all elementary and middle schools first, he said. Students could remain in their buildings while the new ones are constructed.
The space would be tight with traffic and bus flow, coupled with construction. But, the safety of the children would come first.
Being able to remain in their buildings would save with costs, shuffling students to other locations, and renting space, or the need for temporary modular classrooms. Schorr’s plan diagrams were for both one and two-story facilities.
It would be impossible to build a new high school with the old one standing, especially if they build around the auditorium and auxiliary gymnasium, the architect concluded.
Schorr’s plan suggests moving the high school students temporarily to the old middle school. At that time, they may also have to use some modulars to house more students, depending on enrollment.
The high school auditorium is one of the largest like it in the area, according to Armes. Residents have repeatedly made it clear that they would like it to remain. The auxiliary gym is 20 years old.
The OSFC builds "cafetoriums" in all new buildings, which serve as a cafeteria at all times, and an auditorium when needed. OSFC does not build auditoriums.
Both the auditorium and auxiliary gym could be separated by firewalls. OSFC will also not provide funding to update either.
Meloy suggested that some of the money normally used for building maintenance could be set aside so the district could pay for refurbishing both.
During construction, she anticipates little would be spent on maintenance on old buildings. The district now spends close to $700,000 a year to keep up with the deteriorating schools. Some of that could be set aside for a few years until the high school project would begin.
Treasurer Tim Penton said that if the re-building project comes in under cost estimates, they can then put the district’s leftover portion into capital improvements. The state’s portion would have to be returned. This will also have to be worked in the ballot language.
Meloy said there would be more public meetings to see what residents want and what teachers need.
Board member Blythe Wood, offered, "We know our kids and teachers need new buildings, and our community will benefit."
Schorr said that studies affirm that students react with better test scores and grades in newer buildings.