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Published: Sunday, 3/23/2003

Preservationists sound alarm over replacement of school buildings

BY KIM BATES
BLADE STAFF WRITER

FINDLAY - To many teachers at two middle schools here, their classrooms are cramped, and the basements are leaky and unpredictable.

To preservationists, the nearly 80-year-old buildings are landmarks, structures that have historical significance and should escape the wrecking ball.

Whether to restore older schools or build new ones - and further encumber taxpayers - has become a common battle across northwest Ohio and southeastern Michigan.

The issue also has sparked intense national debate, with the National Trust for Historic Preservation placing community schools on its list of endangered structures.

“I definitely feel that people's eyes are being opened up to the issue,” said Constance Beaumont, a state and local policy director for the Trust based in Washington.

In Ohio, voters in the Toledo Public School district last fall approved a 4.99-mill property tax levy, the yield of which will be paired with $614 million from the state to fund the more than $800 million construction project. The money will help build 57 school buildings and remodel seven others over 12 years. But historians are still pushing to have additional schools improved - Libbey and Woodward high schools.

In the Williams County village of Edon, Ohio, school officials are desperately looking for a tenant to take over their main school building, which will be vacated under a state construction project next year. It likely would be demolished.

And in Findlay, a battle over preservation is unfolding in the middle of a levy campaign scheduled for May. The board will seek a 3.06-mill, 28-year levy to build three new middle schools. Donnell and Glenwood middle schools would be torn down, while Central Middle School would be used for other purposes. An elementary school also would be remodeled.

Findlay preservationist John Hutson urged the school board last week to reconsider its decision to demolish the two middle schools, both built in 1925.

“Not everything that's new is better than what you have now,” Mr. Hutson said.

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Mr. Hutson's comments in Findlay followed a half-hour tour at Glenwood school, during which school officials gave residents up-close looks at what they say are problems in the building.

Principal Randy Ward showed the dozen or so people in his group the inside of a small girls' bathroom, one that has just one sink.

Then he showed visitors the basement, a place he joked “was one the better parts of our building.”

After walking down a concrete stairway, Mr. Ward pointed to a boiler that he said sends uneven heat throughout the several-story brick building. Visitors walked across rubber mats covering a small weight training room, which he said often fills with water.

Upstairs, Mr. Ward showed people several classrooms, explaining they were built for decades-old taeching techniques. There is no space for computers and study circles often used in the 21st century.

Included on the tour was Donnell School teacher Susan Barnhill, a graduate of Donnell.

Ms. Barnhill seemed to be a possible proponent for preservation: She showed up wearing three D's for Donnell attached to her shirt.

But later she stood before a crowd of school officials and historians as she offered a frank explanation about why she believes Donnell needs to be replaced.

“Even though I know what you're feeling, the memories are there, the history is there; we need a better learning environment,” Ms. Barnhill said. “I think it's time to put that memory book up on the shelf.”

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The debate over schools has generated controversy in many communities.

Preservationists argue that neighborhoods ultimately are put at risk by destroying older schools and replacing them with newer buildings, often sited outside original neighborhoods.

But those seeking new construction say older school buildings generally are too costly to renovate and were not built to equip students with today's learning needs.

In Ohio, the issue has been especially hot as the National Trust for Historic Preservation and other historians have argued the state's funding system for new schools is unfair.

Royce Yeater, director of the Trust's Midwest office in Chicago, said last week that trust officials are hoping for more changes from the Ohio School Facilities Commission, which reviews and funds most school projects. They're seeking more preservation-friendly policies and the abolition of Ohio's two-thirds guideline, which calls for new schools whenever renovation is 67 percent of the new construction cost.

He said the commission should be credited, though, with making a recent change to allow for school districts to opt out of the two-thirds guideline and split renovation costs with the state. But he said many school officials are still unfamiliar with the change.

Commission spokesman Rick Savors said OSFC always tries to do a good job weighing a building's historical value versus quality of education. He said guidelines are necessary so districts are treated fairly in the funding process. He said the commission is trying to work with districts on an individual basis.

“It's important to realize, even though we have rules and regulations, they're not written on Mount Sinai in stone,” Mr. Savors said.



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