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So big was the project, so vast its purported benefits to the city and its schools, and yet it barely passed.
Toledo Public Schools broke ground a decade ago on the largest infrastructure improvement project in district history. ‘‘Building for Success,’’ as it came to be called, was a $650 million project that completely remade the physical face of the district. The last new school has opened and the project is essentially over. And yet whether the buildings are a success depends on how you do the measuring.The project was part of a major push by the state to overhaul Ohio’s schools, with much of the state money provided from tobacco settlement funds. But to get the money, districts needed local funds as well. A TPS plan to renovate or rebuild 60 schools went before voters in 2002, and after an extensive campaign, voters approved a 4.99-mill, 28-year levy.
Supporters noted that the state covered most of the construction costs. Toledo would never get this chance again.
That Toledo’s schools were in disrepair was agreed. Its buildings had an average age of 62 years when the levy was passed.
“The buildings at TPS were old, crumbling, not technologically up to date,” said Peter Silverman, a Toledo lawyer who was school board president in 2002. “And there's no way that the district could have ever kept them up.”
But there was extensive debate about how the problem should be fixed. The Ohio funding would only pay for renovation projects if the cost to renovate was less than two-thirds of the cost for replacements.
The commission made exceptions for historically significant buildings and modified requirements over time. But its preferences led to fears in Toledo that the city would lose many of its “unmatched architectural jewels,” as then mayor Carty Finkbeiner put it.
Those fears in some cases were realized, though not always because of the state. A TPS commissioned study listed nearly 20 buildings with historical significance that should be saved. In the end, fewer than half were renovated.
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Terry Glazer, director of the United North community development agency, was a school board member in 2002. He was the most vocal member of the board to advocate for restoration.
“I do feel that we could have kept more of the buildings,” Mr. Glazer said. “That’s just sort of Toledo’s attitude toward our history. We tend to demolish things instead of restore things.”
There was a hope that the new buildings would build TPS pride and reverse enrollment declines. But since 2002, the district has lost 10,000 more students, which ultimately forced revisions to the building plan and eventual closures of about a dozen buildings. Many, like Libbey High School, were torn down.
Original plans went from 60 buildings to just more than 40, with six renovated without state funds. The last opened was Pickett Academy at the start of the school year. Expansions to the new Whittier and Arlington elementary schools scheduled for this year aren’t technically part of the project.
There’s no doubt Building for Success provided an economic boost to Toledo. It was an infusion of hundreds of millions of dollars from outside the city.
The projects’ eventual reduced scale means fewer people were hired, but estimates put jobs sustained in the thousands. Many of those jobs came when the city, and the country, fell into an economic recession, and construction jobs evaporated.
“I believe that had that program not been here, we probably would had seen a much higher unemployment rate,” said school board member Lisa Sobecki.
Kevin Smith, acting president of the Associated General Contractors of Northwest Ohio, said the project was a major benefit for local contractors and tradesmen. He gave the district’s building program a 90 percent grade. But while most of the money stayed local, too often were contract bids awarded to out-of-town and out-of-state contractors, Mr. Smith said.
“I don’t blame public entites for doing low bids and the best costs to the taxpayers, but there is a balancing act,” he said. “You are hiring the people who are paying your taxes to do the work.”
The district also faced criticism that not enough work flowed to minority businesses and workers. Jack Ford, who supported the levy as Toledo mayor, consistently raised concerns later while he was a school board member about the lack of minority inclusion.
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Often times, he said, minority inclusion on construction bids was for appearance’s sake only. A minority-run contractor would win a bid but only earn a fee and pass on most of the work to a white-owned company.
But at the same time, Mr. Ford pointed out that its on the strengths of the minority community that many Toledo levies pass, and that was the case for the building levy.
Only 51 percent of voters supported the levy in 2002, but support was much higher in the central city, which has a higher minority population.
Building for Success was supposed to be about more than just jobs and new schools. It was about “creating a better future for our kids,” as one supporter said.
The new schools are better technologically equipped and built for modern classrooms. And building pride has improved in some locations. Scott High School, originally scheduled to be torn down and rebuilt, was renovated to the joy of alumni and current students.
Waite High School, Harvard Elementary, and other historically significant buildings were renovated. The new buildings, while maybe less architecturally unique, were built to last at least 40 years and likely much longer, OSFC spokesman Rick Savors said.
But TPS test scores still languish.
And efforts to use new school construction as a springboard for neighborhood change largely fell apart. A group called the New Schools New Neighborhoods Coalition, initially spearheaded by the Toledo Regional Chamber of Commerce, formed under the belief that new schools themselves couldn’t transform a city.
“If you are building new schools in front of a bunch of crack houses, you are still in trouble,” said Sue Wuest, assistant director of the University of Toledo Urban Affairs Center.
The coalition tried to build plans for neighborhood projects that would coincide with the new schools. There were some successes. Groups that now constitute United North initiated housing projects in the Chase neighborhood and got a Boys and Girls club in Sherman Elementary. But other efforts failed.
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Hugh Grefe, executive director of the Toledo affiliate of Local Initiatives Support Corp., said lack of cooperation by TPS and the city stifled momentum. The district went into a bunker mentality, wary of those who became new TPS friends when construction money appeared. The city wouldn’t direct capital improvement funds toward neighborhood projects that aligned with the new schools.
Years later, though, it seems current TPS administration heard the message. Boys and Girls clubs will soon be in three TPS schools, and a similar community hub program is now in four district buildings.
“I think the schools are less isolated,” Mr. Grefe said. “I think they’ve learned, no matter what they might want to be, they can’t be completely monolithic.”
New buildings, Mr. Savors said, aren’t a panacea for all of a school district’s problems. But they do help create an environment for teachers to do what they do best: Teach.
Contact Nolan Rosenkrans at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6086,or on Twitter @NolanRosenkrans.