15 years later: Springfield leaders reflect on combining high schools

Former board member says merging North, South high schools was right ‘economically, academically, athletically’ and for unity.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

Fifteen years after Springfield City School District merged its two high schools back into one, community leaders are reflecting on the difficult decisions then, the successes since and the challenges that remain.

For nearly 50 years, the city operated North and South high schools, names and geographical designations that contributed more to division than unity.

The first combined Springfield High School class walked through the doors of the new high school in 2008, and Denise Williams, president of the Springfield NAACP, said the result is what she wants the community to look like.

“Everyone couldn’t see the future, but whoever made this decision, I believe knew exactly what they were doing because look how we have come together as a family,” she said. “This is my dream, to have one community, and look at the school and how they have blossomed.”

>> PART TWO: Springfield High School: 15 years after North and South merger, leader looks ahead

The decision to merge the schools was always “going to get made,” said Rick Butler, former South High School principal, assistant principal, and district employee for over 40 years, but it just depended on how officials were going to do that and get the best outcome.

“I think it was a good decision … It had great possibilities,” he said. “(But) I don’t think it has fulfilled the hopes and expectations that we had when we planned the merger.”

Superintendent Bob Hill said it’s exciting to celebrate the 15-year anniversary of the combined North and South high schools, which became Springfield High School.

“I feel the creation and existence of the combined schools allows for a city-wide sense of pride for the Wildcats, which was an original goal of combining the two schools,” Hill said. “We are all Wildcats, so ... we really tried to embrace the idea of pulling the city together and becoming that one Wildcat family.”

Is one better than two?

In 2002, officials began discussing whether one high school would be better than two.

For some, it could end the divide in the city since the district split into North and South in 1960.

However, the decision to build one new school mostly came down to the price: Was it worth it to renovate two buildings or build a new one?

Renovations and asbestos removal from the two buildings, plus the district’s financial situation, were two main reasons why the school board in 2004 decided on one high school.

Renovations would have cost $35 million, plus another $24 million to remove asbestos, as well as other things.

Former school board member James Bacon was on the board for the decision to combine and when the combined school opened. He said members had a lot of information to digest and pros and cons to weigh.

The state funding system then favored new schools, he said.

“... And we were one of the districts that were the recipient of that. I don’t think anyone would not want to take advantage of that type of funding,” he said.

Butler said the Ohio Schools Facilities Commission (OSFC) did an inspection on both buildings to see what the costs would be.

“For South, the state recommended it would be a waste of money to renovate and should tear it down and build a new building. North had more options; tearing down and building new wasn’t one of them,” he said.

The state said it would pay about $19 million of the asbestos removal costs, but the schools were in trouble financially. Instead, school officials asked if they could build one new high school.

Another reason to combine was enrollment, which had been declining at both high schools over a few decades, Butler said.

Kim Fish, who was on the “Blue Ribbon Committee” that was formed to give the school board a recommendation on where the new school should be, said combining the schools was needed.

“I felt it was necessary because as Springfield’s population has continued to decline, and funding of public schools is so difficult in communities like ours, the district could not afford to offer the same programs at two high schools,” she said.

How would the merger happen?

Once officials decided to combine the schools, they had to figure out how the merger would happen. A committee of people from North and South staff, as well as people from an education research company called KnowledgeWorks, who Butler contracted for, sat down to figure that out.

Butler said it was a yearlong process. He said the outcome was “a pretty significant change.”

“The main thing that the merger was intended to accomplish was to personalize the experience more for the students who were involved, to make sure that kids were all known by the staff and the staff were all known by the kids,” he said. “They should feel wanted in the building and have ways to make those needs known to the adults in the building.”

Other goals included what a graduate should look like, their skills, their attributes, and how staff would make sure kids had opportunities to grow those skills and attributes.

For the structure of the new high school, rather than a big, comprehensive high school, the plan was to divide it up into several academies, called small learning communities, based on student interests, each with their own teachers and administrators. The high school was set up in the small learning communities’ structure until about 2017.

Where would the new school go?

To decide where the new school would be built, the Blue Ribbon Committee of 16 people who were a “well diverse group of citizens representing all parts of Springfield” was created to give the school board a recommendation.

“Our sole mission was to determine whether to combine the schools at one location and where it should be, or to renovate both,” said Bill Fralick, former chairman of the Blue Ribbon Committee. “Ultimately, it was determined that the renovation of both was cost prohibitive.”

Fralick said members had good discussions on where the school should be, but in the end, the vote was split 8 to 8, so no recommendation on the location was made to the board.

“Much of the discussion involved the history of the two schools, transportation needs for students, the state regulations for the use of funds, and the overall effect of our decision on the community,” he said.

The school board considered all the committee’s information and made the final decision to build the new school where the North High School building stood.

Because of South High School’s location, Bacon said there was not any open land for expansion and that it was set in a community with nearby houses, which means they would have had to go through the process of acquiring property and have negotiations with homeowners.

At the North site, Bacon said the property was already owned by the district and there was no need for demolition of homes.

“It economically and conveniently made more sense” to be at the North site, he said.

Colors, mascot and more

The school board members decided on the new school’s colors, mascot and more.

When the original Springfield High School split in 1960, South kept blue and gold as its colors and the Wildcat as its mascot, while North adopted red, blue and white and became the Panthers.

Bacon said people in the community and board members offered suggestions and many opinions.

“After conversations and debate, we decided on what the position of the majority people thought,” he said. “There is a connection with the history of those that went to both schools, so that in itself is a balancing act as well.”

The most popular option was to combine white with blue and gold, to keep part of both schools, but also keep Wildcats as the mascot.

“The wildcat apparently stems from a 1920s newspaper article where the reporter said the basketball team played like a bunch of wild cats. So, it became the official nickname of Springfield High School,” Stephen Feagins, former school board vice president, said in a previous newspaper article.

State’s biggest school

Construction crews began work on the new Springfield High School in 2006, which was then the largest project to be built under the state’s construction program.

The new high school was the 16th and last new building in the district. In six years, the district built 10 new elementary schools, four middle schools and one alternative high school.

The new Springfield High School opened in 2008 with the largest building and the largest student population of any OSFC project at the time. The 138,400-square-foot building was expected to house a student body of 2,400 students.

The OSCF funded 82% of the project’s $194 million cost to replace all 16 buildings, and local taxpayers paid the rest with a $29.8 million bond issue that passed in November 2000.

Mixed emotions

The decision to combine brought “very mixed emotions” and was a challenging time, Bacon said.

“I think the results over time have been positive. Understanding the challenge of pleasing every sector of the community is very difficult,” he said. “My hope is to respect each other, each individual opinion, as we deal with shifts in our lives and in the community.”

Officials at the Greater Springfield Partnership said the decision to combine schools has “paid off in many ways” for the district and the community.

“Schools play a very important role in determining where businesses and people choose to locate,” said Mike McDorman, president and CEO of the Greater Springfield Partnership. “Our urban school system is not dissimilar to other urban school systems, but the leadership and board of education are committed to making it the best it can be.”

Ed Leventhal, who was on the school board before the high schools combined and was back on it the first year after they combined, said it was a good decision to merge the schools.

“I think it was certainly without question the right decision to combine them on many different levels,” he said. “I think economically, academically, athletically and bringing the community together into one building made a lot of sense.”

Butler said one of the issues during the first few years after the schools combined was a lack of continuity and said people had a hard time “getting their feet on the ground.” He said the kids had an easier time with merging than the adults.

“Everybody wanted to go back to their own school and how it was,” he said. “After a few years, things kind of calmed down.”

Butler said groups on both sides of town were testy about the schools combining and had hard feelings about the decisions made, but the district and other officials had many community, board, and steering committees to figure it out the best way they could.

“If you compare (the initial goals/plans) to where it is now, it’s more like where it was from before the merger happened… it’s more back to a comprehensive school,” he said.

Fish said she remembers dealing with adults in the community who were emotional or angry about combining the schools. She said she learned from it and tried to understand their perspective.

“It made me more sensitive to different ideas, and that helped me stay involved in finding a way to bring the old South High School back into productive use,” she said. “I was not alone in this, the passion for saving South High helped many of us at the district keep working until we could get the job done.”

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