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Involving the Public With School Renovation

Friday, November 9, 2001 at 12:46 PM

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City and state officials are beginning to pull together the details of how to spend nearly a billion dollars in school renovation funds. The money comes from the $340 million bond issue passed by Cleveland voters last May, coupled with a state match of about $700 million. Assessment of the schools - what needs to be done and how much it will cost - is now complete, but there are still unanswered questions. Last night the school district brought Clevelanders up to date on where they are in the planning process. 90.3 WCPN's Bill Rice reports.

Bill Rice- School administrators stepped outside the norm for such community input forums, utilizing the power and reach of television to get the word out on school renovations. These technicians at the Cuyahoga Community College Media Center get out the last few bugs and doing a final check on the behind-the-scenes details of the production, to be broadcast on Adelphia’s Channel 50 throughout the city of Cleveland. Some things have changed since the bond issue and resulting state match was approved. Perhaps the most significant is an increase in the match.

Barbara Byrd-Bennett- We are at a 68-32 match, which is phenominal, which puts us very close to that billion dollar mark.

BR- That’s Cleveland Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, one of the panelists in the televised forum. Byrd-Bennett says the increase in the state match is based on what’s called an equity formula set by the Ohio School Facilities Commission, which distributes state money for school construction. Property values and levels of poverty in the district - part of the formula - have shifted since the bond issue was passed.

BBB- And therefore the equity match goes up. The poorer the district the higher the match. So in some ways we lucked out.

BR- What that means is that instead of the original 500 or so million dollars that was anticipated in state funding for school construction, the district is now looking at upwards of seven million dollars. Chief Operating Officer Mike Eugene says that’s a substantial boost.

Mike Eugene- At the district’s $335 million that puts us out to about a billion dollars cost pgm right now.

BR- Eugene says that figure could go even higher. An exact figure won’t be worked out until the master plan is completed. As for how long it will take to spend that money, Eugene says somewhere on the order of ten years. Many would like to see it completed sooner, but Eugene says going too fast could increase the likelihood of management snafus or inefficiency.

ME- We don’t want to bite off more than we can chew and have ourselves in a situation where we don’t have a agood management process in place that’s efficient and finely tuned.

BR- Also still to be worked out is exactly what the project will entail. District and state officials are still at odds on the issue of replacing vs. renovating schools. CEO Byrd-Bennett has said building new schools would pose logistical problems, especially what to do with students while buildings are being torn down and new ones constructed. She’d rather do what is necessary to repair existing buildings. But many of the schools are so old and in such disrepair that some - including State School Facilities Commission Executive Director Randall Fischer - feel replacing them is the best and most cost-effective option.

Randall Fisher- With a billion dollars available - within that billion dollars there’s probably room for a few new buildings and I think that’s going to happen.

BR- But Fisher appears to have softened on his prior stance that very old and decrepid buildings should be replaced. That could be because after a thorough assessment 92 of the district’s 122 building exceed the School Facilities Commission’s so-called two-thirds rule: If the cost of renovating exceeds two-thirds of the cost of replacing, the building should be replaced. Fisher says that’s not cast in stone however, and indicates he’s willing to give the district some leeway there.

RF- The district has said that everything’s on the table and we’re certainly looking for the best options. But it’s going to be up to the community to make those decisions.

BR- Last night’s televised forum included questions from a studio audience as well as those viewing at remote locations. It’s part of the district’s pledge to involve the public all along the way. Cleveland residents will have more opportunities to weigh in in December, when the district will hold public meetings on the overhaul project at each individual school. CEO Byrd-Bennett says the planning process remains on track.

BBB- We’re sticking to our original timeline. We will have our community opportunities for dialog during the month of December. And we’re hoping to work out a master plan - a preliminary one, anyway, by the end of January.

BR- In Cleveland, Bill Rice, 90.3 WCPN.

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