School construction projects come and go, but Cleveland's Issue 14 schools upgrade is the biggest Ohio has ever seen. More than a billion dollars will be spent - not just giving some old buildings a facelift, but completely rebuilding the district from the ground up. That prospect has generated excitement and renewed hope in many Cleveland neighborhoods. But one part of the deal doesn't sit well with some residents, and debate over it has been so heated as to delay completion of the plan. Now, school board members are down to the wire, with difficult decisions yet to be made. 90.3's Bill Rice reports.
Bill Rice: Meetings, meetings, and more meetings. They began when Cleveland Municipal School District administrators dropped into each and every city school to talk to parents, teachers and others about what they wanted for their buildings. Community involvement is an essential component of planning ten years of school renovations, said Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett. And meeting facilitators urged those attending not to hold back.
DREAM about what you would like to see in your schools...
And dream they did. New windows, new bathrooms, science labs, art and music rooms, gymnasiums that don't double as cafeterias and auditoriums, playgrounds... What ultimately appeared in the first draft master plan, released in March, was for some nothing short of miraculous - 46 school would be torn down and replaced with brand new buildings; many others would undergo complete renovation. But some residents got something they never expected, or wanted, in their WILDEST dreams - some of their neighborhood schools would be closed. And they let school officials know they weren't pleased.
Mike Polensik: How could you make any report without consulting city planning? How could you do that?
BR: Cleveland City Councilman Mike Polensik was one of a chorus of city officials who in early April decried what they saw as a closed-door planning process. Since then, school officials have held still more meetings - one at each of 16 schools slated for closure - listening to complaints and devising alternative options to consider. Some are gratified by the effort to include community members in the planning process. But on May 16th, when Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett turned 19 versions of the plan over to the board, Councilman Joe Cimperman, who opposes closing Tremont Elementary School in his ward, was more despondent than ever.
Joe Cimperman: The plan is simply not acceptable.
BR: If Cimperman is upset with district officials and the school board, he's steaming mad at the state government - namely, the Ohio School Facilities Commission or OFSC, the agency that's footing two thirds of the bill for the ten-year rebuilding project and makes many of the rules. And with the state, Cimperman faults it's hired hand Dejung and Associates, the Columbus firm whose projections of declining enrollment led to the decision to close the schools. He says the projections are unsubstantiated, and accuses the company of dodging his questions.
JC: I still have to receive any answers from the original dejung report. But I know why I'm not receiving them. Because there are none. Because the Dejung statisticians were clearly wrong. Because the information that we think is important in this effort was not even looked at.
BR: Cimperman predicts dire consequences for his ward if Tremont closes - a destabilized neighborhood, the loss of an historic school building that is the focal point of the neighborhood, the convenience and security of a short walk to school.
Others foresee great benefits to their neighborhoods. Councilman Zachary Reed says he understands Cimperman's anger and even shares some of his concerns. But he can live with the original March master plan.
Zachary Reed: Are we happy with all the school closings? You gotta understand we have three schools closing in my ward, Ward 3. It's going to impact us dramatically. But we understand why they did it, so whether we agree or disagree, we now understand why they did it, so we now have to move forward and see how to utilize those school buildings that will be closed in the next five or six years to our benefit. And that's what we need to be looking at.
BR: Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett says she endorses no one school closings option over another, but she is clear on her reason for the choices she made: the best state match she can get, and the best schools that that money can buy. Wavering from the rules set by the OSFC, she says, will result in less state money; giving in to sentimental attachments and resisting change could compromise the high quality facilities. As she turned the decision on a final master plan over to the board, she urged them to act in the best interests of the district as a whole.
Barbara Byrd-Bennett: You undertake the most important deliberations our district has faced in decades, and the most important deliberations it will face, certainly, in my lifetime.
BR: The next day found Byrd-Bennett, several of her staff, and three board members were on a plane to England - a trip planned long before the facilities flap erupted. They've only returned this past weekend, and the board now has just a little over a week to finish its community outreach, sort out its options, and decide. In Cleveland, Bill Rice, 90.3 WCPN News.