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Saving Cleveland’s Historic Schools

Thursday, July 10, 2003 at 12:26 PM

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It's been about a year since the Cleveland school district firmed up its plans to spend more than a billion dollars in school construction money. Much public debate preceded the finalized plan, sparked in large part by community discontent over plans to close some schools. In the end most neighborhood groups went away satisfied - even if grudgingly so. But preservationists say there's still more negotiating to be done. They say too many of Cleveland's historic school buildings are headed for demolition, and they hope to change that. ideastream's Bill Rice reports.

Collinwood High School on Cleveland’s east side is among the city’s older school buildings that will be preserved. Restoration work underway this summer falls under the district’s “warm, safe and dry” phase of school renovations. A more complete overhaul of the 79-year-old Collinwood won’t take place until 2006. Construction manager Mike Karowski and his crew are taking care of immediate needs this summer.

Mike Karowski: The guys are grinding out the masonry joints and they’re going to replace them with new mortar. They’re either bad or deteriorated and they’ll be replaced. Other areas they’re replacing windows and doors.

Collinwood is one of 53 school buildings in Cleveland considered historic under National Register for Historic Places criteria. That’s according to Kathleen Crowther of the Cleveland Restoration Society. Of those, 22 are slated for demolition and replacement, and Crowther says that’s too many.

Kathleen Crowther: For us, what we see is a tremendous opportunity to use state funds to preserve Cleveland’s historic neighborhood schools.

And, Crowther says, the Society hopes to persuade the district and state officials that rehab is the way to go. It plans to study four Cleveland schools using a $10,000 grant from the Ohio Historical Society.

Kathleen Crowther: We’re emulating a study that was done in Columbus by the Columbus Landmarks Foundation that has been very well received by the district that has really changed the entire tone and master plan strategy for that district.

Gail Saunders: We did make some adjustments.

That’s Gail Saunders, Special Assistant to the Superintendent at the Columbus Public Schools. In fact, she says, the study convinced the Columbus district to preserve 10 out of 11 schools originally targeted for replacement.

Gail Saunders: Our superintendent had many discussions with the Ohio School facilities Commission to help the commission understand the unique needs of Columbus Public Schools, but also urban education centers as well.

The Ohio School Facilities Commission is a major player in the effort to overhaul schools. That’s because so much of the funding for such projects comes from state coffers - about $800 million in Cleveland’s case, to match about half that in local taxes approved by voters for the project. Thus, the OSFC sets most of the guidelines. One, known as the two-thirds rule, states that if the cost of renovating a school exceeds two thirds of the cost of a brand new building, then it should be torn down and replaced. It’s a sore point for districts - and preservationists - who say it’s an arbitrary constraint. But Rick Savers, spokesman for the commission, defends the rule.

Rick Savers: The cost of renovation can go high very rapidly. If you’ve ever done a kitchen and renovated a kitchen, you know what happens once you actually start pulling things off the price can go up if you find things you don’t expect. The same thing happens with a school building.

But, Savers says, the commission has loosened its previously harder line on the two-thirds rule, and Cleveland has received variances on several buildings. The Restoration Society’s Kathleen Crowther credits the district with helping soften the guidelines by insisting there were significant savings to be had by renovating. But she and other preservationists maintain that more effort should be made to salvage more older buildings, citing benefits beyond simple cost considerations. Royce Yeater is with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Royce Yeater: First of all, many of the school buildings that we have available to us today represent some of the best architectural efforts and the best construction efforts and some of the highest points of pride the communities could possibly have mustered.

Construction practices and values just aren’t the same today as they were prior to World War II, Yeater says. Crowther agrees.

Kathleen Crowther: New construction uses far inferior materials than these older buildings. These older buildings are battleships and they can be retrofitted, so to the extent that they can serve for good education in the 21st century we believe that with this new infusion of rehabilitation dollars they will last longer than the 40-year requirement for a new building.

And while it may be tricky to retrofit buildings with modern wiring, and plumbing and heating, she says, there are experienced architects who specialize in preservation who can do the job.

Cleveland school officials declined to speak with us for this story, except to say they are cooperating with the society on its upcoming study. And they’re working with other city leaders that are paying attention to the issue, such as City Councilman Joe Cimperman. He says the old schools are important anchors in his community.

Joe Cimperman: You know, it is important for us to preserve these buildings. Many people feel that preserving our schools is one way to almost teach a history lesson to our students about their neighborhoods, about architecture, about good design. It’s really a value that the community is embracing.

And even though 22 of Cleveland’s historic schools may ultimately be consigned to the scrap heap, another 30 or so, Collinwood High School included, will be preserved, and stand to serve Cleveland’s educational needs through much of this century. In Cleveland, Bill Rice, 90.3.

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