Whitehall Schools to build support for bond issue

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The Whitehall school district is at least a year away from putting a bond issue on the ballot, but they are already starting to look ahead to communicating the district’s facility needs to voters.

At the Sept. 13 meeting of the Whitehall Board of Education, consultant William "Corky" O’Callaghan addressed plans for the community engagement process for a district-wide building improvement plan.

The district is considering taking advantage of funds available through the Ohio School Facilities Commission (OSFC), which provides funding, management oversight and technical assistance to local school districts for construction and renovation of school facilities.

After an assessment last year by the OSFC, it was determined that all Whitehall City School buildings qualify to be demolished and replaced with new buildings. The total cost to rebuild all buildings would be about $65 million, with the state paying for 62 percent of this expense. The community would be required to approve a bond issue for the remaining 38 percent.

"In spring, we met with all the employees and asked them ‘What are the limitations in your buildings?’ " O’Callaghan told the board.

According to a draft outlining plans for the community engagement process, 92 percent of the respondents felt their buildings were a barrier to their job performance. Only 2 percent indicated that their facilities were not a barrier to their work.

Respondents said the greatest challenges facing them as far as facilities are concerned include: buildings are old and outdated for today’s instructional and program needs; age of equipment and technology; lack of sufficient classroom and special program space; temperatures in the building; security systems; air quality and ventilation; restrooms and plumbing; electrical needs; and noise and sound-proofing.

"This is a work in progress as this conversation evolves," O’Callaghan explained to the board. "It’s important to listen to people first and then let them ask the questions."

Now that the staff has been surveyed, O’Callaghan said, the next step is to build a leadership team consisting of about 25 staff members, parents and community members.

"We’ve got to get people who are do-ers," he said, challenging each board member to provide the superintendent with two names of people who would be willing to "help build this conversation and reach out to the community and get involved … That way, we’re ready to hit the ground running in January."

This winter, he continued, the plan is to host grass-roots "coffees" to gauge community support for the project.

"We’ll hold them anywhere we can get people together," O’Callaghan said, noting hosts can hold them at their homes, churches or community centers. "The host’s responsibility is to provide something to eat and get people there. We will have people there to help facilitate the discussion."

The first half hour of the event will be spent listening to concerns, then the next step will be to lay out the situation and hand out information.

"We need to tell them ‘Our facilities are getting in the way of teaching our kids and these are the reasons why,’ " he said.

They will then present the state OSFC options, "And then open it up and let people start asking questions."

O’Callaghan continued, "The board really needs direction from the community on what to do because we’re not taking anybody for granted. By the time we get to the end of the school year you will know if you have enough support to go on the ballot."

Transportation concerns

In other news, several parents came to the board with concerns regarding transportation issues. Teresa Smith said she was shocked to learn her son, who just started his freshman year, would no longer be bused to Madison Christian this school year.

"I don’t understand what the big deal is about not letting a ninth-grader go on the bus," he said. "We have kids here on the same street who are being picked up and taken there … If you already have a bus driver and you already have a route and you have plenty of space – it’s hard for me to understand this as a Whitehall citizen."

Superintendent Judyth Dobbert-Meloy said it has been district policy not to transport any high school students for two years.

"We are taking students to 52 different schools,’ she said. "We are tapped out with what we can do transportation-wise … We have had to add a lot of transportation routes because we are required to transport to community and charter schools."

Ray Riffle, director of maintenance and transportation, added, "How could we say yes to your son and say no to everybody else? … The law says we have to treat each student the same."

Smith asked if there was a way she could pay Whitehall schools to transport her son because the transportation was causing a problem with work schedules.

Board President Walter Armes responded, "It sounds OK, but when the whole picture starts to come out we could end up with 60-some routes. We just don’t know what kind of issues could come up."

Riffle suggested Smith contact Columbus Schools to see if they could arrange to transport her son.

"If Columbus has a bus going there then we would do a release letter to do that," he said.

Resident Toni Angle said she has a third-grader who is bused to a parochial school and is among other students who are at the building unsupervised for more than 40 minutes a day.

"We all know what kids can get into," she said. "The 40 to 45-minute time frame for me kind of flunks the fair and reasonable test."

Riffle said his office is already working on the problem and he expects it to be resolved shortly. He noted they aim to get students there 10-15 minutes before school begins.

"That is the goal," he said. "Sometimes it is a little bit early and sometimes it is a little bit late. Next week you should hear something from my office."

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