Written by Bill Hart
Political candidates weren't the only thing citizens cast their vote on last week. On November 2, many communities also voted on the fate of older and historic school facilities. I’d like to share two stories from the Midwest region, where I work as a field representative for Missouri Preservation.
In Missouri, historic schools in Vernon County, which could have been at risk for abandonment due to an annexation proposal, will remain in place. With an overwhelming majority of 69%, voters decided to keep the school systems separate and their older schools in use.
A similar preservation victory was won in Ohio. There, the proposed levy to demolish five of Rossford’s schools in favor of building three new facilities was defeated 66% to 34% of the votes.
To prevent the demolition of these five schools, concerned citizens formed the Coalition for Effective and Efficient Rossford Schools. They believed that the walkable schools located in their neighborhoods were integral parts of the community, and that the structures were incredibly sound. The proponents of new facilities argued that the buildings (1924 high school and 1923 and 1922 elementary school buildings) were too old to be remodeled and that older buildings couldn’t be retrofitted with 21st century technology to become more energy efficient.
Also, the Ohio Schools Facility Commission preliminary assessment numbers showed renovation to be over two-thirds the cost of building a new facility. Nowadays, this is a state guideline, not a requirement, but it still led some residents to believe the state required them to go with the new facility in order to be reimbursed by the state agency.
So, advocates in both Ohio and Missouri gave many reasons for saving the historic school buildings in these communities.
Newer is not always better. Old age does not undermine an older school building; lack of maintenance does. Studies have shown that it is almost always less expensive to renovate an existing building than to build a new one. Up to 25% of a new school building’s cost is in the building’s shell, not to mention the investment in land and improvements to the land to construct a new school campus. Renovation is the ultimate in “green” building practice. It contains sprawl and saves on valuable building materials that would otherwise be dumped in our landfills.
Bigger is not always better. It has been shown time and time again that lower class sizes usually produce better test scores. Studies have proven that at some grade levels lower student/teacher ratios correlate to higher mathematics scores. At the eighth grade, it has been shown that lower student/teacher ratios improve the school social environment, resulting in higher achievement.
Consolidation means loss of community. For students and parents alike, the school is a center of civic life. It is where we vote, attend PTA meetings, take advantage of continuing education opportunities, and hold community events. It costs us our identity and feeling of safety, and will usually cost much more in transportation costs. Time used in getting to and from school is increased, and takes away from homework and physical exercise.
In Missouri, advocates will help the school district find other examples where older schools have been successfully adapted for modern purposes. In Ohio, now that the levy was defeated by almost two-thirds of the vote, the advocates are developing a plan to present to the Board of Education at their next meeting. It outlines a community-led process for developing a new master plan, suggests a new maintenance plan with dedicated funds for school facilities, and proposes an immediate energy analysis to provide detailed information on the state of the existing building to the community.
These studies may also lead the way towards potential improvements through the state’s energy-efficiency program known as Ohio HB 264, as part of a new Master Plan. The HB 264 program allows school districts to make energy efficiency improvements to their buildings and use the cost savings to pay for those improvements. “In this one limited instance, school districts can borrow funds without having to pass a ballot issue … to borrow.”
So now that you heard these stories, why don’t you share how schools fared in the voting booths in your community?
Bill Hart is a Field Representative for Missouri Preservation and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He is based in St. Louis, Missouri and would love to learn more about what was decided about older and historic schools in your community on November 2.