Repairing Old Schools in Cleveland: Discussion Given New Light in Wake of East High Collapse

Bill Rice- After a frantic afternoon following the collapse of Cleveland's East High School gymnasium roof, city and school officials breathed a heavy sigh of relief - only five injuries, none of them life-threatening. It was a close call, said Cleveland School District CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett a few days later.

Barbara Byrd-Bennett- You cannot imagine how many times I have thanked God since last Friday. I shudder every time I visualize my initial walk-through as I look up at the hole where the gym roof had existed. I don't want to minimize the injuries that two staff people and three of our students sustained, but they were minor, compared to what could have been.

BR- East High is now closed. Its 850 students are attending classes at several interim locations. What's left of the gymnasium is being torn down, and school officials have set October 30th as a possible date to reopen the school.

Meanwhile, a - quote - "quick and dirty" assessment of all 121 Cleveland schoolhouses has turned up six possibly dangerous sites, which have been closed off. Moreover, the need for an overall upgrade of schools throughout the district is extensive, according to Bill Wendling, cheif spokesman for Cleveland schools.

Bill Wendling- Somewhere in the range of 1.2 or 1.3 billion dollars that we need to try to come up with to bring our schools up to a standard in which we can educate our students. The oldest was constructed in the 1890s, so some of them need to be replaced.

BR- Cleveland, like most Ohio school districts, can't afford such an extensive endeavor on its own. Wendling says money from the state for building projects is forthcoming, but that will take time, and some of the district's facilities troubles need immediate attention.

BW- It's a question of how do we get the state to expedite some of the funds that are going to be available to address some of our facilities needs right now? Not in two or three or four years. So we really need to get our hands on some of the money to begin to take some action immediately.

BR- Some of the more urgent repairs - those necessary for the health and safety of students - will be done this year. They'll be paid for partly with funds from the state's "Big Eight" program, which was designed for just such projects. Over the longer term, Cleveland schools, and school districts throughout Ohio, are slated for major improvements under the state's Classroom Facilities Assistance Program, an initiative implemented in 1997 to fund everything from major renovations to brand new schools. The dollar amounts are substantial - about $2.6 billion have been allocated so far, with more planned in coming years. Districts receive the funds according to where they fall on a so-called "equity list," says Rick Savers, who heads the Ohio School Facilities Commission.

Rick Savers- Those districts that are the least wealthy are the highest on the list, 1, 2, 3, etc., all the way down to 612 - those that have the highest valuation per pupil, ie: the best ability to raise money on a local level. We are required to work up that list for the classroom facilities assistance program.

BR- Savers says Cleveland's place at number 222 on the list would have brought the city up for funding in 2007 or 2008. A move last year by the Ohio General Assembly will speed that up for urban districts.

RS- Starting in Fiscal 2003, July 1st 2002, we'll start seeing funding flowing into these urban districts.

BR- Even that's not soon enough, says Lori McKlung, Government Relations Director for the Cleveland School District. McKlung says time is of the essence, given the age of some of the buildings and severity of some of the problems.

Lori McKlung- We have estimated that it will take twelve years to go through and do a systematic replacement, renovation, major repairs, new buildings, whatever, in order to appropriately deal with the issues across the district. We think, though, that we ought to be starting on those things now, not in 2003.

BR- McKlung says the reason for the long wait is to allow the state time to hire its own independent assessors, rather than trust indiviual districts to do their own. She says the district is trying to persuade state officials otherwise.

LM- We're one of many that are saying the same thing. And there's only so many people that can come in and do the assessments. The state has heard us, I think they've been receptive. They havn't made a concrete assessment on whether or not they're going to do that though.

BR- There is some consolation in all of this. Observers say in the long run Cleveland schools stand to gain substantially in the coming years, not only through state funding, but also through a proposal in Congress that many, if not most, expect will soon become law - plotting a new direction in federal funding of schools. Bill Rice, 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.

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