Oakwood schools Superintendent Kyle Ramey said he now has a better understanding of community priorities for the district’s proposed facilities master plan, but the details, scope and timing are still undecided.
After four public information sessions, Ramey said infrastructure needs appear to be residents’ first priority, followed by improving performing arts spaces. He said proposals for a new early learning center and/or new middle school/high school complex have drawn some interest, but are definitely lower on the list.
But even in areas such as infrastructure, where residents have encouraged the district to make investments, there are significant questions about the details.
“We’ve heard, ‘Yeah, we get the need for infrastructure’ (improvement),” Ramey said of public feedback. “So what does that mean, what are the priorities, which buildings are worst, how would you spend and what specifically would you spend it on? … And we simply don’t have those answers yet.”
On Feb. 28, Oakwood school leaders presented seven options ranging from $48 million for a comprehensive renovation of existing facilities to $102 million for renovations plus two new buildings. Oakwood’s existing schools date to the 1920s, although some have more recent additions.
At the four public meetings, Oakwood residents have raised numerous concerns about the proposals — an increase to already-high tax rates, loss of green space via new construction, whether that construction is needed given stable enrollment, preserving the character of existing buildings, and the mechanics of borrowing enough money to execute an expensive project. A less-vocal group has urged the district to move forward with a major revamp of facilities.
Ramey said it is still possible the school board will decide to put some type of levy or bond issue on the November ballot to fund a facility project, but he said it’s also possible the district will wait longer, adding that any significant project would be done in phases rather than all at once.
“It doesn’t have to be in 2018, but we can’t kick it down the road (forever) either,” Ramey said. “Before we would ever put anything on the ballot, we would have to have the entire list of exactly what we would be doing and the costs that go with that. Right now, we’re getting what we wanted – learning what people’s priorities are.”
Jim Joly, an Oakwood grad and parent of two current students, thinks there’s been more of a “persuasive argument” in favor of significant projects rather than a balanced review that asks, “what do we really need?”
“Our kids are functioning in the 99.7 percentile in the state in terms of performance,” Joly said. “And the reason they perform well is not really tied to any facility design. It’s because Oakwood has a great culture for learning and education, and the parents support that. It’s reflected in how the kids value education and study hard.”
Joly said he’s not a strict “no more taxes” advocate, saying he has voted for all past Oakwood school levies. But he urged caution given that school bond levies are generally 37-year taxes. Oakwood listed 7.5 mills as the cost for its cheapest of seven proposals.
Ramey said any sizable project would have to include some mix of levy funds and state or private dollars. He said proposed costs were based on a review of what building systems would need to be fixed or replaced within 10 years.
Joly questioned the accuracy of some of those estimates. He pointed to the state’s facility review, which gave the heating system at Oakwood High School the lowest rating of “needs replacement.” But that same review said the heating system is safe, with “long-term life expectancy” as long as routine maintenance is done.
Ramey acknowledged the district can do a cheaper project than $48 million, depending on the quality desired. He said it is a good time to consider facility lifespans.
“The buildings are not falling down around our kids. That’s not where we are, which is great, and we’re trying to be proactive and get ahead of it,” Ramey said. “You present and explain and share, and either the community is ready or not ready. We’re trying to work through and understand that as a board and a leadership team.”