The Athens NEWS is recommending a yes vote on Issue 3, the Athens City School District’s 5.88-mill capital improvements levy on the Nov. 6 ballot. We make this recommendation with reservations, however, since valid concerns have been raised in the community about the cost of this property-tax levy and whether its associated school-building plan is the district’s best option.
After considering the pluses and minuses of Issue 3, however, we’ve decided to support the levy. The School District’s leadership has framed a compelling case that the district’s serious building and infrastructure needs must be addressed sooner rather than later, or else the district will face much higher costs in the future.
Meanwhile, without new and renovated buildings, students, faculty and staff will continue attending schools that are well past their prime, with infrastructure that’s obsolete or insufficient for the work it’s being asked to do. Schools don’t last forever, and district faculty and staff can certainly attest that many of Athens’ school buildings, including the High School, have been deteriorating for many years.
The Issue 3 building plan calls for two new pre-K to third-grade schools at the present sites of Morrison-Gordon and East Elementary schools, a total renovation of The Plains Elementary for grades 4-6, renovation of the present Athens Middle School for grades 7-8, and a new high school on the site of the existing facility for grades 9-12. West Elementary would no longer serve as a school, though plans for the building are uncertain.
The School District’s building plan, if Issue 3 is approved on election day, will accommodate a realignment of elementary grade-level locations in the district that the School Board approved as part of a Facilities Master Plan last March. The impetus for reconfiguring grade levels arises from the School Board’s desire – also often expressed in the community – to redress historical socioeconomic variations within the School District.
The idea, which we strongly support, is to place children in the elementary grades in the same school(s) to avoid the economic segregation that occurs with smaller schools whose enrollment is determined by geography. This has been a long-standing issue within the Athens City School District, which includes both poorer rural areas and relatively prosperous Athens City neighborhoods.
Putting more students of the same grades in the same schools also allows for centralized academic, extracurricular and other student services, which makes those services more effective, efficient and less expensive.
In adopting the Facilities Master Plan, the School Board committed to moving toward reconfiguration and consolidation of elementary grades regardless of whether the bond issue is approved by voters. It seems obvious, however, that implementing elementary-school reconfiguration will be much easier and more effective with new schools in place.
The 5.88-mill levy on the ballot, if passed on Nov. 6, will raise $60.5 million for the local share of the building project. Some $52 million of that amount will provide the match to leverage $27.5 million in state money (though the timing of receiving that state money isn’t certain). The other $8.5 million will pay for so-called locally funded initiatives – desired improvements that the state won’t match for one reason or another.
No doubt about it, the increase in property taxes will be meaningful – amounting to a 21 percent increase over what homeowners and businesses in the School District already pay in property tax for local schools.
That’s not peanuts, though the cost will only get higher in the future as infrastructure and systems in the current schools require more expensive repairs and replacement. And it’s important to recognize that while the state’s one-third match is likely available now, it may not be in the future.
ISSUE 3’S COST OBVIOUSLY WAS the main instigation for a dark-money opposition campaign that arose earlier this month, with an invasion of white “Vote NO 3” signs planted all over Athens, and especially in Ohio University student neighborhoods. To this day, the cynical, anonymous campaign is continuing its attempts to persuade student voters to cast no votes by warning that their landlords will pass along higher property taxes in the form or higher rents for student housing. It’s cynical in that 1) the anonymous individuals behind the campaign are likely landlords themselves; and 2) there’s nothing in their signs, stickers or website that suggest they care about, or are even aware of, the educational issues behind Issue 3.
That’s unfortunate since the “Vote NO 3” campaign has been confused with legitimate opposition groups (the main one has been posting yellow “No on 3” signs).
This opposition group (Athens Area Citizens for Common Sense Solutions) properly registered its committee with the local Board of Elections and, unlike the white-sign “No on 3” instigators, has avoided posting signs and stickers in public rights-of-way or in yards without obtaining property owners’ permission. They appear to care deeply about educational issues, and have raised reasonable concerns about Issue 3.
They and others question the School Board’s failure to deliver on a promised programming study to assess educational needs as a prelude to a new school building plan; the need to bus many elementary students across the district under the Issue 3 plan; the limitations of placing a rebuilt K-3 school on East Elementary’s small property footprint; issues with Issue 3’s proposals for the high-school gym and auditorium; the School Board’s selection of a facilities plan option last March that had less support than other options that were on the table; and the decision to stop using West Elementary as a school if Issue 3 passes.
Supporters of small local schools also question how socioeconomic issues will be addressed when pre-K through third-grades are divided between two schools.
To varying degrees, these are valid concerns, though we do feel that school officials and board members have addressed most of them satisfactorily. On the other hand, the fact that many folks who traditionally have supported school levies in the Athens City School District currently oppose Issue 3 suggests that Issue 3 faces a steep climb to passage on Nov. 6. In the past, Athens City School District levies have enjoyed enormous success only because voters who value education stand together. That’s not happening this time.
Notwithstanding these issues, we recommend voter approval of Issue 3. The longer the Athens City School District puts off replacing and significantly renovating its aging stock of school buildings, the more it will cost to keep them running or to eventually replace them. Contrary to some opponents’ assertion that Issue 3 isn’t about education; modern school buildings with new infrastructure, updated technology and modern learning environments certainly do enhance the educational experience of schoolchildren.
We say vote yes on Issue 3.