Districts ask voters for money to build new schools: Is it worth the cost?

Why are so many school districts replacing their buildings right now?

When the bell rings at Fairborn Intermediate School Aug. 17 for the start of classes, it’ll only be the second first day of school in that building as the district continues a district-wide facilities project costing over $200 million.

When school starts in Troy Aug. 23, sixth-grade students could be walking through the same hallways their great-great-great grandparents did. The district is asking voters to approve an $87 million levy this November to help them access state funds for new buildings.

A Dayton Daily News review of area schools found several districts across the region are opening new buildings this upcoming school year or plan to open new buildings soon. This is in part because of an influx of COVID-19 federal funds to local school districts and state support to rebuild schools, but also because many of the school buildings locally were in rough shape.

Educators say the age and condition of school buildings impact learning. Troy has had to cancel classes on hot days because some of its buildings lack air conditioning. Before building new buildings, Fairborn would have to evacuate classrooms when pipes would burst. New buildings also allow for technology and security upgrades.

Building and upgrading facilities is costly, however, and often requires support from local voters in addition to state and federal tax dollars.

There’s a sense among school leaders that building repairs aren’t necessarily something to talk to parents about; that roof repairs and HVAC systems aren’t as important as what the child is learning in the classroom.

But if the child’s learning is being derailed by chunks of plaster falling from the ceiling, or a classroom that’s too cold to focus, parents start to notice.

Credit: Jim Noelker

Credit: Jim Noelker

Replacing school buildings

According to Dayton Daily News survey of local school districts, many local schools have done projects either renovating or replacing old school buildings in the last five years. Huber Heights, West Carrollton and Fairborn have replaced some or all of their buildings since 2018.

Some schools are still in need of repairs, but many of them are in wealthier districts further down the line for the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission, which prioritizes older buildings and districts with less wealth.

The Ohio Facilities Construction Commission — OFCC — is a state agency that works with the Ohio Legislature to determine the order of replacing school buildings in Ohio and provides state money to help. That can be a significant boost for school districts, though it also requires a local match.

Starting in 1997, the Classroom Facilities Assistance Program, which is run by the OFCC, worked through the list of school districts in Ohio and what buildings needed to be replaced when. Most schools get some kind of state support when rebuilding schools because it is expensive to build a new, energy-efficient school building.

“While we have addressed the facilities needs in more than half of the state’s school districts, we know that there is more work to be done,” Anne Yeager, OFCC spokeswoman, said. “Every day we work with districts that have not yet been offered state funding.”

Two local school districts — Fairborn and Troy — are examples of what OFCC funding can do for a district. Troy is on the ballot in November with a 37-year bond issue to generate about $87 million for a project with the OFCC to replace their elementary and sixth-grade buildings, consolidating them into four buildings.

Fairborn passed levies in 2016, 2020 and this past spring to pair with OFCC money and pay for new elementary, intermediate, middle and high school buildings. The primary and intermediate schools have opened while the high school is currently under construction.

Credit: Jim Noelker

Credit: Jim Noelker

Fairborn’s new schools

The primary school cost about $27.3 million to build, while the intermediate school cost about $24 million. The high school is estimated to cost about $90 million, and the middle school is estimated at $55 million.

The state is paying about $70 million for the new schools, while the districts’ share is $135 million, raised through three levies.

Fairborn Intermediate School principal Betsy Wyatt said ongoing issues with old pipes, leaky roofs and HVAC were constant headaches in the old Fairborn Intermediate building, which was on the same site as the new building. The new building opened this past school year and houses grades three through five.

“Pipes would burst and we would be running around emptying classrooms,” she said. “Water, water everywhere.”

Gene Lolli, superintendent of Fairborn schools, said he gets fewer calls from parents worried about how hot or cold their kid is with two new buildings in the district. The old intermediate building had a barely functioning boiler, he said, that was so old the parts for it were no longer made. It didn’t work well, so teachers had space heaters in their classrooms.

Summers would be sweltering, Lolli said, and teachers on the first floor couldn’t open their windows for air circulation due to concerns about safety. The best practice to prevent anyone from getting into the school building unauthorized is to shut all doors and windows, and even inside of the school, to keep doors leading into hallways shut.

Lolli and Wyatt said the new building is significantly safer. Visitors can only get into the building through the main office, where there is another set of locked doors before they can get into the school. In the mornings, when students are streaming in from both the bus and parent drop-off, staff can watch students come in from one vantage point at the top of the stairs in the cafeteria.

It’s also an improvement for teachers, who now have updated technology and safer classrooms.

Hannah Ross, a fifth-grade teacher at Fairborn Intermediate, said there no longer are distractions for students like water leaking from the ceiling or mice running across the room. The technology in the room is up to date.

The first time she walked into the building with other teachers, she was amazed.

“We were looking at each other like, this is ours,” she said.

Troy buildings century old

Troy wants to replace seven aging school buildings, including the Van Cleve sixth grade school at 617 E. Main St., with four new buildings, including three elementary schools and one fifth and sixth grade school.

The current proposal is for the preschool-to-grade-four buildings to be located at the Cookson Elementary and Hook Elementary school sites, plus a site at Ohio 718 and McKaig Avenue. The proposed location of the building for grades five and six is property the district owns off Swailes Road.

The levy on the ballot in November would generate about $87 million. The OFCC’s share of the costs is about $46 million.

Some of the school buildings in use at Troy schools are more than 100 years old, said superintendent Chris Piper, and not all of them are disability compliant. It costs more than $800,000, the total amount of the district’s permanent improvement funds, to upkeep all the school buildings, and Piper said the district could easily spend more.

The sixth-grade building has just one elevator for students who need additional help getting around. There is only one bathroom for those same students.

Van Cleve also doesn’t have air conditioning, and that’s the first thing that people notice walking into the 109-year-old brick building. There are fans in the hallways, but some classrooms, especially on the third floor, can be stifling. Troy has had to end school early or cancel it entirely on very hot days.

The boiler is original, and while it heats the building well, Piper said it has other problems.

“If that boiler goes out, and let’s pray that it doesn’t, but if it goes out, there is no contingency plan to repair that or to move students to a different facility,” Piper said. “They would probably have to manufacture parts in order to repair that boiler.”

The current sixth grade building was built as a high school and has also been used as an elementary school.

Van Cleve Principal Maurice Sadler said a particular problem with the building is the tiny, old cafeteria. He spoke with some people who attended the building as a high school, who told him that most people left school for lunch, which is no longer the case. Instead, there are three lunch periods for the sixth graders.

Other school updates

There are plenty of districts that have older school buildings that aren’t in immediate need of replacement, but those buildings are still undergoing renovation constantly.

Oakwood City Schools have buildings that are over 100 years old. The district asked the community in 2018 what they’d like to see in their school buildings, and the community said they wanted to keep the buildings, according to the district.

Oakwood made several HVAC updates in 2021 to the junior and senior high and replaced boilers at both elementary schools in 2020.

“While district leaders share the love for our buildings, operating buildings that are 100 years old comes with significant challenges and expense,” said Frank Eaton, operations coordinator for the district. “The district works with a host of professionals from numerous trades to ensure our buildings are safe, operable, and meet or exceed standards for public schools.”

The district has permanent improvement funds to make repairs that are meant to last at least five years, including concrete repair, HVAC improvements and lighting updates.

Of the schools in the region, charter schools, which aren’t eligible for the state’s building funding, may have some of the worst quality buildings. In Montgomery County, charter schools are often stuffed into disused churches and old school buildings.

Aaron Churchill, Ohio research director for the Fordham Institute, a think tank that advocates for charter schools, said there have been some steps forward in state policy to help charters with facilities, including increasing per-pupil facility aid. But he said that would be more likely to help with basic maintenance.

“But there hasn’t yet been a concerted effort to support building upgrades and/or construction for charter schools in Ohio,” Churchill said. “Lacking significant facility resources, charters will continue to struggle to secure the building space needed to serve more students.”

Officials with the OFCC say they spent $10 million on facilities for charter schools this year though that program is no longer funded.

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