An East Cleveland School slated to open this week will be closed until further notice. School officials voted last night to close Kirk Middle School because of lingering problems with black mold and asbestos in the auditorium. The school is finding itself in the middle of a nationwide debate over aging schools. Historic preservationists treasure many of these older buildings, claiming they could become national landmarks, but many school officials say new buildings are cheaper and more practical. Is Kirk Middle School an historic wonder that should be restored to glory, or a dilapidated eye sore? 90.3 WCPN's Janet Babin has the story.
Janet Babin- There's a steep incline that separates Cleveland from its eastern suburbs, and 71-year-old Kirk Middle School seems to sit right on top of the hill. The three-story brick Georgian Revival building has large windows, white columns and a bell tower.
The band is practicing next to the school, but the building is empty after vandals broke in, forcing summer school to close. Kirk Middle School might stay empty even after classes resume in the Fall. East Cleveland school officials are considering closing it, claiming it's unsafe for students.
School board member Emma Whatley says a major problem is Kirk's beautiful slate roof, that's damaged the auditorium.
Emma Whatley- The roof is leaking, and that's asbestos up there, and when it gets wet, it could be a health hazard.
JB- Even in such dangerous disrepair, it's hard to miss Kirk's marble water fountains, tiled hallways and hardwood floors. But outside, there's more decay: paint is peeling and the bell tower is leaning. Whatley says the wood columns supporting the building are so corroded she can stick her finger through them. In addition the building doesn't meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, nor is it wired for student computers. Kirk was slated for demolition this summer, but opposition halted the plans.
At a rally in April, about 100 people asked the school board to reconsider. East Cleveland Councilman Nathaniel Martin.
Nathaniel Martin- Built like a tank, the school will last another 200 years, and we gonna tear this down and put up some prefab stuff kids will tear up just like that, to meit's unacceptable.
JB- The Cleveland Restoration Society is backing the Save the Kirk Committee. The group is arranging for a new feasibility study to reveal Kirk's condition. The Society's executive director Kathleen Krather says the school is well worth saving.
Kathleen Krather- Kirk to me looks like an Ivy League prep school. It might be the most historic, important building in East Cleveland, and I can't understand why they would tear it down.
JB- Martin, the Save Kirk committe, and others are making it difficult for the school board to get permits to demolish the building. While Martin is black, Whatley says most of the people who want to save the school are whites who have moved away. She resents people from wealthier school districts telling her what to do.
EW- The crap that they're asking us to accept, rehab and give black children what? You're asking me, your child goes to a beautiful school, my child goes out to visit and come back and cry because they can't go to a school that looks like that. How can I justify even considering (keeping the building) - I can't.
JB- East Cleveland Superintendent Elvin Jones says rehabbing the building is financially impossible under Ohio's "two-thirds rule": if repairing a school would cost more than two-thirds of what it would cost to build a new one, the state will only provide funding for the cheaper alternative.
Elvin Jones- The state has been very clear that they will not pay to renovate Kirk. They will pay for a replacement of Kirk. That puts me in a position that Kirk must come down if someone doesn't want to buy it.
JB- Other states, including Massachusetts, Minnesota and Washington have similar rules governing reimbursement policies.
Ohio Governor Bob Taft says the fate of Kirk Middle School rests with local residents and school leaders, but he clearly outlines the state's concerns.
Bob Taft- I suggest that you distinguish the difference between saving a beautiful school building and deciding what's best for students.
JB- But historic preservationists question the validity of state assessments. The National Trust for Historic Preservation added Kirk Middle School to its list of the country's most endangered historic places in March. Constance Beaumont is with The National Trust for Historic Preservation. She says state percentage rules often don't include certain building costs. She also says that architects are better trained at building new schools than restoring old ones. Beaumont says in Kokomo, Indiana, a school board almost demolished an historic high school because it was told renovation would cost $20 million, but it actually cost only $4 million. The school was saved from the wrecking ball because a school board member happened to be fire safety expert and questioned the estimate.
Cleveland architect Jonathan Sandvik agrees. As he does a spot check of the building's mortar, Sandvik claims Kirk Middle School's in relatively good condition.
Jonathan Sandvik- Take a key out and inspect them, you see this is very hard (key sounds), this is in very good condition.
JB- Sandvic's lead architect on a project converting the former HJ Heinz headquarters in Pittsburgh into 400 new housing units. He says that Kirk's renovation could be done in a way that makes the school even more special than a new building
JS- This isn't a matter of lowering the quality, but indeed embodying and ennobling, because detailing available in this school is not in the majority of the new schools at all, but rather the artistry and the great care that the building is done with wonderful quality.
JB- Even kids who attended the school are clashing over its fate. Tonie Robison and her friend Meeah are enjoying the fleeting moments of summer vacation, playing cards on their front porch.
Tonie Robison & Meeah- I think they should tear it down...don't listen to her... you go home, go, she don't live here, so her opinion don't count.
JB- Down the street, 25-year-old Joquana Longino wants school officials to save Kirk Middle School, but as she reminisces about her years there, what she remembers most has nothing to do with bricks and mortar.
Joquana Longino- I loved my middle school teacher Miss Phillips - I loved her class.
JB- The Cleveland Restoration Society is paying for a new assessment of Kirk Middle School. The school district is promising legal action if the city continues to block permits for Kirk's demolition. In Cleveland, Janet Babin 90.3 WCPN News.
School official Emma Whatley says officials are working on plans to relocate Kirk's 900 students, and the building is being sealed. But she says the city still hasn't come through with building demolition permits. For more information on both sides of the Kirk Middle School debate, call the school district at 216-268-6570 or the Cleveland Restoration Society at 216-426-1000.