Clark County rural districts face aging buildings, no voters

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Christina Elliott, principal of Rockway School, talks about one of the leaks in the school building.

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Clark-Shawnee Local Schools has failed twice in the past six months to pass a bond issue that would allow the district to build a new elementary school, mostly because of one precinct that refuses to vote yes, a review by the Springfield News-Sun found.

It’s part of trend of rural school districts having trouble passing bond issues for new schools in Clark County in recent years. Greenon passed a bond issue in May, but after failing multiple times to get new schools. Northeastern will try again in November to pass a bond issue to build two new schools also after voters rejected it a few times.

In Clark-Shawnee district, Springfield Twp. Precinct One, where Rockway School is, overwhelmingly voted no in both November 2016 and last month. In May, the precinct recorded more than 200 voters casting ballots against the issue while only 88 voted for it.

The difference between passing and failing was only 109 votes, according to the Clark County Board of Elections.

PREVIOUS REPORTING: Clark-Shawnee schools asking voters to OK issue for $37M project

The Springfield Twp. Precinct One margins were even larger in November, when 411 voters cast a ballot against the bond issue and 253 voted for it.

Springfield Twp. Precinct Two, which is next to Rockway, also overwhelmingly voted no in the last election. The precinct recorded 148 votes against the issue while 88 voted for it. But it ended up voting for the bond issue in the November election.

The failures at the Rockway precinct has caught the attention of school leaders. Clark-Shawnee School Board President David DeHart said they are reviewing how they approach the area for the upcoming August special election that will ask voters to approve the same bond issue that has already failed twice.

“We’ve had some discussion of our strategy,” DeHart said. “I don’t think it’s fully finalized yet.”

All three areas of the district have their share of no voters, Clark-Shawnee Superintendent Gregg Morris said, and the district is working hard to reach out to all voters to try to sway them.

The bond issue aims to build a new pre-k through 6th grade building across the street from Shawnee High School. Currently, the districts has three elementary schools: Rockway, Possum and Reid.

The cost of the new building and renovating the high school would be $52.8 million, with local tax payers picking up $37.2 million of that bill. It’s the district’s last shot at guaranteeing the state’s share of the cost.

If the bond passes, the three elementary schools will be shuttered. It would raise taxes by more than $15 a month for owners of $100,000 property.

Rockway rebuff

It’s clear that the Rockway area has been a stumbling block to getting the bond issue passed, DeHart said.

“They like having their local schools,” he said. “We had several plans that we looked at and made presentation in all three buildings of what the plans were last year. We presented those to the people. A lot people thought, ‘Well, wouldn’t it be great to have one school.’”

MORE: Greenon, Clark-Shawnee bond issue election results

Residents interviewed by the News-Sun shared a variety of reasons why people who live near Rockway have voted no. Opponents cited cost to trust to feeling content with what the district already has.

“I’m tired of all these school districts coming to the property taxpayers to pay for their dream project,” resident Shelly O’Brien said.

O’Brien lives close to Rockway School and said she won’t vote to pay more taxes and shut down the school.

“These buildings are fine,” she said. “I don’t buy into the fact that our students will learn better in a nice, clean, white environment.”

Resident Alan Brown has been vocal about his disapproval of the construction project. He said he has spoken to many people in the Rockway area who plan vote no again in August.

“They don’t like the way the schools are being operated, they don’t like the scandals, they don’t want to lose their schools,” Brown said, referring to the drug arrests of two district employees and a investigation into alleged misconduct on the Shawnee baseball team.

Morris has said previously he hopes voters can look past those issues and keep the district’s students in mind when going to the polls. The current plan is the best option for the district and its students, he said.

“This is our plan A,” Morris said. “All (students) would have equal access to a really good learning facility with modern technology. A safe and secure learning environment.”

Phyllis Cochran has lived in the district for more than 50 years. The current schools are fine, she said, and she will continue to vote no.

MORE: Clark-Shawnee building levy will be lone issue on Aug. 8 ballot

“I don’t think we need them,” she said. “Both of our kids went to Shawnee. I can’t see why they need new buildings.”

Cochran doesn’t agree that change is needed in the district.

“Look how long we have had Rockway,” she said. “What’s wrong with the way it is?”

‘Pretty bad shape’

A tour of Rockway last week by the News-Sun revealed many leaks in the current building. It also showed drainage issues in bathrooms, steps that were falling apart and questions as to whether the school follows laws set forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Rockway School might not be in as bad of shape as Possum or Reid, DeHart said, but it needs replacing. Rockway, which opened in 1920, is almost 100 years old.

“They’re all in pretty bad shape,” DeHart said. “I know every year we are fixing roofs. You get one area fixed and another area goes bad.”

School leaders say they can’t afford to keep fixing constant problems at the old elementary schools. There is a need to address the issues now, they say. They list a number of issues, including ceiling leaks, no central air and lack of electrical infrastructure that keeps the district from doing better.

Possum School was closed last month due to a gas leak. All three schools were closed at the beginning of the school year because of hot weather. A flier handed out by the district says it will cost almost $20 million over the next 10 years to maintain the buildings.

RELATED: Shawnee considers August ballot issue

No voters said repeatedly that it is the district’s fault for not keeping buildings modern over the past 100 years. O’Brien said her home is older, too, but she doesn’t plan to knock it down because she has maintained it through the years.

“I don’t think economically in these times it makes sense to come to the taxpayer to pay your bills,” she said. “The property taxes are ridiculous out here. I am just tired of being taxed to death.”

Reaching out to supporters

A main goal for the district in this upcoming election will be to reach out to voters who cast yes ballots in November but didn’t vote in the May election, DeHart said.

“We had 3,000 voters in November that supported us and if half of those voters had come out, then we would have passed it in May,” DeHart said.

The last two elections were close, he said, and he believes the community can rally together to pass the bond issue in August.

“We want to reach out to those yes voters to come out and support us,” he said.

Clark-Shawnee Parent Scott Woodruff said he voted for the levy in May. He said after that election there’s a huge need for new schools in the district

“I cannot believe anyone can go into our district and not jump up and down and demand new schools,” he said.

Northeastern Local Schools

Northeastern also wants to build two new k-12 schools in the district and will likely be on the ballot in November.

The district held multiple forums and conducted a scientific survey to select its building plan.

MORE: Northeastern school board plans to keep district split

Northeastern Board of Education President Chris James said at a recent meeting that schools and students’ learning environment matters.

“The statement I have heard a couple times is, ‘It doesn’t matter what the buildings are like. It doesn’t matter that it rains in the buildings and there are trash cans and ceilings falling, that doesn’t matter,’” James said.

He condemned that line of thinking, adding that he believes students get a good education at the Northeastern but are robbed of new opportunities and lessons that the district’s current infrastructure cannot support.

Relying on information from the survey conducted earlier this year, the Northeastern school board has been vocal so far about how they intend to win new schools in November — by getting parents out to vote.

“The last decisions that were made were made with 70 percent of the people who don’t have students in our district,” James said of the last time a bond failed in the district. “You know how how we get something to pass? We have to have people who have kids in this district out to vote.

“Those are the people I hope who know the talented people who do their best with what they have and will come out and support because they know we got to have new buildings,” he said.

Greenon Local Schools

After several tries Greenon voters passed a bond issue in May allowing the district to build a new pre-k through 12th grade building.

It was the first bond try under new Greenon Superintendent Brad Silvus, but not the first time the district tried for new schools.

RELATED: Greenon starts planning $54M new school after bond issue passes

He said one reason he thought the bond passed this time was because of hard work from volunteers.

“All the statistical data from the polls over the last 10 years have been researched and that’s where we developed the plans to go out and not have the meetings that are big that a lot of people can’t get to,” he said. “We sent volunteers out to talk to voters on a one-and-one. I think they did some of that before, but we are really targeting people that are here and expressed interest and expressed questions.”

The Greenon bond issue passed by more than 500 votes in May and the district is working with the Ohio Schools Facilities Commission to finalize its state funding for the construction project.

By the numbers

350: People in precincts that includes the Rockway School area who voted no in May.

176: People in precincts that includes the Rockway School area who voted yes in May.

109: The margin of defeat the bond issue failed by in May.

Unmatched Coverage

The Springfield News-Sun provides the best coverage of local school bond issues and levies for Clark-Shawnee, Greenon and Northeastern Local Schools.