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Parma school officials blasted for not catching that high school could be renovated with state aid

Supporters of the Parma City School District levy walked the main streets of Parma in early October to advocate for a yes vote on the levy.
Parma Partners in Education
Supporters of the Parma City School District levy walked the streets of Parma in early October 2022 to advocate for a yes vote on the bond issue to replace Parma Senior High School.

Parma school officials found themselves in the hot seat during an emergency board of education meeting held over the weekend, over the planned demolition of Parma Senior High School, which could now be put on hold.

The school district’s last four attempts to get bond issues approved by voters to fund construction of a new high school have failed, including one most recently in the spring. Those opposed to the issues often voice concern with the district’s plans to consolidate its three high schools into one; meanwhile, some have argued the district should renovate the historic Parma Senior High School rather than tear it down.

Some of those advocates were present during the meeting Saturday, which became somewhat chaotic at times as a few audience members harshly criticized the board and administration, and some spoke outside of the allotted public comment time.

The meeting was called after Seven Hills Mayor Anthony D. Biasiotta sent a letter out to residents last week (Seven Hills is in the school district’s footprint) alerting people to the fact that the school district is eligible for a waiver from the state’s Ohio Facilities Construction Commission to help pay for renovation of the high school.

“In our district, this option was not even discussed publicly nor presented to the public as an option,” he wrote.

The district and Superintendent Charles Smialek had long argued that commission would only pay for construction of a new building under a rule that if a renovation costs at least 66% of what it would cost to build a new building, the state would only help fund the new construction.

Smialek said during the board meeting that he didn’t learn the district could apply for a waiver of that rule until recently; he shared an email that he and school officials received in 2018 that did state that fact, but it was buried in an attachment in the email that he said wasn’t read fully.

“You can doubt my diligence, and I understand that I’ll probably take somewhat of a beating for that in public, but I never want you to doubt my honesty,” he said.

Smialek said today he’s requested a visit from the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission, which funds about a third of school districts’ qualifying building construction projects, to further explain. In the meantime, board of education member Mark Ruda requested the board hold a discussion soon on whether or not renovation could work for Parma Senior High, and if the district should halt demolition.

Smialek noted that if the district were to renovate all three high schools – which would only be to update plumbing, heating and cooling, walls, windows and electrical systems to make sure the schools are warm, safe and dry, and not provide any new features – would cost about $270 million; Parma Senior High would be about $110 million. The district had previously estimated a brand new campus at Parma Senior High with modern fixtures and amenities would cost about $250 million, with the state covering 37% of that.

Meanwhile, demolition of Parma Senior High is estimated to cost about $3.5 million; if the district were to halt the process (demolition hasn’t started), it would need to pay about $700,000. Finally, Smialek said the state-funded renovation only pays for the basics mentioned above; it doesn’t provide any new fixtures the administration is looking for, like new security features, more natural light and improved classrooms.

Ruda said that the district needs to do its due diligence and see what renovating the school could look like. He noted a bond issue will need to be passed to fund the project regardless, so that could also pay for an addition with new learning facilities the district wants.

We need to at least answer the question of whether or not it was possible to do what the people wanted us to do, which is redo this school,” he said. “As much as I hate wasting taxpayer money… Losing $700,000 is way better than losing $3.5 million and then having to spend $250 million to rebuild something when we didn't have to do that.”

Anne Yeager, a spokesperson for the facilities commission, said in a statement that it believes the district was doing the right thing by seeking to build a new building, rather than renovate it.

“OFCC collaborated with the Parma School District five years ago to develop a master plan for its school facilities,” Yeager said. “Because of the condition of Parma High School, it was evident that the cost of renovation would have exceeded the cost of replacing the building with a new, state-of-the-art facility. The building was not a good candidate for a waiver of the OFCC policy for renovation versus building new.”

Some residents like Bob Funk, who’s lived in Parma for 70 years, said voters don’t support the district tearing down Parma Senior High and then hoping they’ll eventually pass a bond issue to build a new school

“We’re going to wind up with a vacant lot at the corner of Longwood and West 54th street,” he said. “I really feel like this high school is built well.”

Other residents criticized the superintendent and the board, including Seven Hills resident Jack Thrane – who noted he had voted for levies in the past, but has become disillusioned with current attempts – blasting Smialek for seeking jobs elsewhere (he had applied this year to be Akron’s next superintendent).

“I’m very disappointed with the outcome of this money that was available and no one knew about it,” he said. “How could this possibly happen?”

Board president Steven Vaughn responded that he has full confidence in Smialek, and didn’t begrudge him an opportunity to advance his career.

“When I first met Dr. Smialek, when we hired him, I knew within five minutes that he was the gentlemen to lead this district forward,” he said.

The district is facing a decision regarding its decision on the high school; since it’s closed the school, it’s fallen under the purview of an Ohio law which requires school buildings under 60% enrollment to be put out to bid for use by charter schools within a year. Board member Ruda said that should give the district enough time to explore whether it can renovate the building or not.

Meanwhile, the district is still facing a looming deficit, expected to be more than $20 million in the red by 2027; the district will likely need voter approval of an operating levy to keep it stable, officials have said.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.