Levy, school construction splits Yellow Springs school board candidates

Five newcomers are asking for voters to elect them to Yellow Springs’ school board, with a dividing line between those who support a school levy and those who do not.

Yellow Springs Exempted Village School District five-member board has three open seats.

School board members elected to the positions serve as the link between the public. They hire and evaluate a superintendent and treasurer; set district policy; are in charge of goal-setting and long-range planning; and establish the budget.

The controversial topic in the Greene County village this election cycle is not masking or CDC guidelines -- there, the candidates are generally in consensus -- but a levy to fund a new K-12 school and concerns about what the levy means the future of the Mills Lawn elementary school and its surrounding greenspace.

Yellow Springs voters will decide this November on a 6.5-mill property tax and 0.5% income tax, estimated to raise about $23 million. If it passes, the district wants to move the location of the elementary school to the current location of the high school and turn the high school into a combined K-12 school.

Then, the district would have to decide what to do with the Mills Lawn school property.

Multiple assessments reported the cost to fix up the Yellow Springs schools would be more than 66% of the cost to build a new building, which is the standard Ohio uses to determine whether a building should be fixed or replaced.

In 2018, voters rejected a smaller, new construction and renovation levy.

Judith Hempfling had previously served on Village Council and announced her candidacy with Amy Magnus, a former Air Force researcher now starting a children’s museum in town.

The two are against the levy and would like to develop a plan to improve and maintain existing school buildings.

Hempfling said she is running for school board, because she believes it is in the community’s best interest to preserve and improve the current school facilities.

Along with concerns that passing the levy could lead to the development of Mills Lawn and then loss of the greenspace, she said there’s also an environmental concern to using resources to build new, when its more efficient to use existing buildings when you can.

“The greenest building is one which already exists,” she said.

She and Magnus also both shared concerns about the cost of the levy being more than the community can bear, and that it is risky to mess with a school that now is a draw for enrollment.

Magnus said after researching, she is interested in the approach of other districts like Centerville, which implemented a continuous improvement levy.

“So instead of borrowing a lot of money upfront -- and again that bond is really, really risky for a small community like this -- we basically save money for a down payment,” Magnus said.

Hempfling, also a longtime nurse now part-time at Miami Valley Hospital, said the school levy issue is what prompted her to run, but she brings multiple skills to the table for issues beyond the facilities. She emphasized her time on Village Council, including as council president, where she gained experience leading and governing.

She said it is important to figure out what the community is most comfortable with, and to realize there’s generally more than one good solution to a problem. On council, Hempfling said she would advocate for bringing different points of view to the surface and discussing them as thoroughly as possible.

“What better system of decision making is there, when you’ve got people with diverse values and diverse points of view, about what’s best to do for a community? I feel like that’s true for a school community, as well as a village council,” Hempfling said.

Magnus said she wants to use the role on school board support the arts for students. She also been interested in special education since one of her children was identified with autism and she wants to use her role to support the services that made big a difference in their lives.

“It’s extremely necessary in these times, specifically in the wake of the pandemic, to support our arts, our special education, and our early intervention,” Magnus said. “That’s where we’re going to find what we need to recover from the impacts of the pandemic.”

Magnus said she also has been involved in STEM outreach for over a decade.

Luisa Bieri Rios, Dorothee Bouquet and Pamela Nicodemus all also announced their candidacy together and each support the proposed school levy.

Bieri, a Yellow Springs grad and district parent, said the preservation of greenspace at the Mills Lawn school area and the school levy “shouldn’t be placed as an either/or conversation.”

Credit: Andy Snow

Credit: Andy Snow

Bieri, a previous board member or Yellow Springs Home Inc., said she’s seen the need for some development to spread the tax base wider, which will also help with the overall affordability in the village. She also said this is a time for community engagement and to collect ideas about future use of the space.

The current facility plan is the most comprehensive and cost-effective over time, she said.

“Postponing the issues that the levy addresses will only make them more challenging over time,” Bieri said.

She also said she wants to prioritize efforts to attract and retain teachers. She highlighted strengths in the school district that she would want to support including its commitment to experiential education, holistic learning, and commitment to social and environmental justice.

“I will strive to continue to create an educational environment where all are welcome and find a sense of belonging in our school community,” Bieri said.

Dorothee Bouquet, a senior lecturer at Purdue University, said she recently became a citizen, which motivated her to get civically involved and give back.

She started attending many local government meetings. With a Ph.D. in history, she found herself often using her research and analytical skills to help people understand their local government, and she sees running for office as a way to help more people in this way.

She said one of her goals would be to work to retain and hire teachers that live in the village, because there’s a benefit to having teachers as neighbors familiar with the community. There’s opportunities for improvement with HR policies, like starting to do exit interviews as an inexpensive way to get good feedback.

She additionally has experience with Greene County Coalition for Compassionate Justice and educational visioning team for the Yellow Springs School District.

Bouquet, a supporter of the levy, said it is important to come to conversations about the Mills Lawn school with empathy and to also look at the bigger picture of school funding. When she sees tensions in many small communities over levies, she sees people who care about their community and difficult situations created by inadequate state school funding.

Bouquet said she sees the levy plan as the least wasteful plan currently available to the village, and she’s interested in helping with fundraising to offset added costs on people with a hard time affording it.

“The way that I look at it is that failing this levy is not going to make the village more affordable,” Bouquet said. “We’re just going to push the can down the road, and then the price of renovating or building is going to keep going higher.”

Pamela Nicodemus, a Yellow Springs district parent and who teaches in the Cincinnati area, said the Yellow Springs schools and teachers are “fantastic,” and she wants the community to support the facilities that the district needs.

“I’ve seen how good school can be with better facilities,” she said.

Nicodemus said the high school she went to elsewhere in Ohio doesn’t exist anymore because the community couldn’t pass its levies.

While that can feel to some like an abstract threat, Nicodemus said after the last levy in the village didn’t pass, she worries about what will eventually happen if the community doesn’t pass its levies.

“In Yellow Springs, our philosophy in how we raise our kids and how we teach our kids is unique to Yellow Springs. It’s one of the biggest things that Yellow Springs people agree on. And we just we can’t lose it,” she said.

Nicodemus said she brings experience to the board as an educator. Through her work in career tech, she said she is familiar with the different needs of different kids.

She said she is also used to working in an environment where its important to listen to different opinions and then make timely decisions.

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