$35M new Greater Dayton School gets approval, over some objections

The nonprofit arm of a local real estate investment firm has cleared a key hurdle in its multiyear quest to open a new $35 million school in Dayton that it says will offer a world-class education to low-income kids.

Dayton’s plan board has recommended approval of a zoning map amendment and final development plan for the Greater Dayton School ― a preK to eighth grade school proposed for vacant land north of the Mad River in the McCook Field neighborhood.

Connor Group Kids and Community Partners ― a nonprofit associated with the Connor Group, a Miami Twp.-based company that owns $3.2 billion in assets ― says this will be the first nonreligious private school in the state that exclusively serves under-resourced and disadvantaged children.

“This will be a transformational project for the children and families in our community,” said Jerry Bowling III, the president of the McCook Field Neighborhood Association. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

But some opponents said they worry the project will eliminate open space, mature trees and downtown’s only dog park while also taking resources away from Dayton Public Schools.

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The proposed Greater Dayton School site consists of more than 10 acres of land north of Deeds Point Park, which is across the river from RiverScape MetroPark.

Connor Group, which owns and operates luxury communities across the nation, wants to build the school and related facilities on some vacant and underutilized properties that currently are home to a baseball diamond and parking lot.

The proposed five-story school building will have 33 classrooms, a gym and a “wraparound” clinic and is expected to serve 400 to 600 students, said Jeff Green, a planner with the city of Dayton.

Site plans also show a turf sports field and track, a basketball court and a playground.

The Greater Dayton School team spent four years visiting and talking to the best schools and educators who have done transformational work to identify key ingredients of high-performing schools, said A.J. Stich, founding principal of the Greater Dayton School.

The most recent Ohio Department of Education’s District Profile Report shows the state public school district median expenditure per pupil was $12,025, and for Dayton Public Schools it’s nearly $17,000 per student.

The Greater Dayton School has committed to spending $30,000 per student annually, he said, and it will use innovative academic strategies that are complemented with support services, like vision, dental, a food pantry, mental health and pediatric therapy.

These are “things that all too often kids from low-income households don’t have ready access to ― those will be available to the kids in the school, onsite,” he said.

The project’s price tag has grown to about $35 million ― about $10 million over earlier estimates ― because of inflation, rising construction costs and site plan revisions, he said.

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Bowling, with the neighborhood association, said the school is a good project for this location and he’s not heard any opposition from neighbors in the immediate area.

“It will have a positive impact for decades,” he said.

City staff recommended approval of the project, and some people who work and live nearby also support the new school, like Monnie Bush, the founder and CEO of the Victory Project on Troy Street in Old North Dayton.

The Connor Group has a track record of delivering on its promises and helping put kids in environments that lead to success, Bush said.

But the Northeast Priority Land Use Board this month voted 3-2 to recommend denial of the school’s request for a zoning map amendment and final development plan.

The city’s planning staff received some emails and phone calls from residents who object to the project.

Megan Barkley, a resident of Old North Dayton, said she visits and enjoys the Deeds Point MetroPark every week and she routinely takes her dog to the dog park.

She said one of the best qualities of the area is the green space and open space.

“Just because it’s land that’s not developed doesn’t mean it has to be developed,” she said, adding that she likes the idea of the school but there are better places to put it.

Matthew Noordsij-Jones, a physician in Old North Dayton, said multiple schools are close to the project site, including the River’s Edge Montessori School, just across the river.

Noordsij-Jones said this area does not need another school and this project does not sound like a smart way to better serve low-income kids.

“Private schools come in and say they’re going to do amazing things for all of our kids, and over and over again they haven’t done amazing things,” he said. “They have taken a lot of money, but haven’t done a lot with it.”

Noordsij-Jones said this project will take kids and resources away from Dayton Public Schools. He said the Connor Group should partner with the school district instead of competing with it.

The Greater Dayton School has reached a deal with Dayton Public Schools that says no more than 40% of its students will be direct transfers from the district from the previous year.

Greater Dayton Schools also agreed to donate $500,000 over three years to the school district, and it will not directly solicit students or families while on public school grounds and will not use public records-request information to recruit the districts’ students or staff.

The Greater Dayton School will run on the Educational Choice Scholarship (EdChoice) voucher program, which provides about $6,000 per student per year, said Ryan Ernst, director of the Connor Group Kids and Community Partners. The group also will use its own funds to invest more money into its students, he said.

Some of the Connor Group’s investment fund profits are put into its nonprofit work, he said, and the company expects to spend about $300 million on nonprofit activities over the next decade.

The Connor Group looked at about 45 sites in Dayton, as well as sites outside city limits, Ernst said, and this one was chosen partly because it is centrally located. Ernst said it is likely that 90% of the new school’s students will live within 3.5 miles of Deeds Point.

Connor Group also has proposed creating a new, 2.5-acre public park that has educational and interactive water features and other nature-oriented amenities. The park would be constructed where the current dog park is located.

Deeds Point Dog Park does not fall within the school project area, though it is expected to be impacted by the project. Planning staff said the city is looking for a new home for the dog park.

Plan board member Rosie Miller said she thinks this is prime real estate that could have better uses. Miller, a former educator, also said she wishes the money being spent on this school was instead invested in the public school system.

But Miller and the other plan board members decided to unanimously vote to recommend approval of the zoning map and development request, with a notable condition.

Board members added the condition that the school make the new sports field, playground and track available for public use when the school is not in operation.

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