Former board members: City, school should work together better on building project

By Dan Walter and Bob Cawley

In 2004 the Board of Urbana City Schools enlisted the assistance of a well-respected Urbana businessman to look for a possible site for new schools.

One possible site was on south U.S. Route 68 across the road from the site now being considered. We decided against that property owing to what appeared to be insurmountable traffic problems. Nearby industries – Navistar, Rittal, and Honeywell – would all compete for the same two-lane highway when school begins and lets out.

Another site was the fairgrounds property just east of the horse barns; the fair board wanted to keep that for future expansion. The farmer across the road from the fairgrounds was also approached, but he had no interest in selling.

The 60-acre site we selected adjoined the Boyce Street athletic complex and the YMCA, was reasonable in price, and was close enough to neighborhoods to allow some students to walk to school or use the bike path.

Board members at that time were Robert Cawley, Jim Hall, Charles Johnson, Warren Stevens, and Dan Walter. Members Hall and Johnson are now deceased. The property was paid for within five years.

As nearby West Liberty-Salem and Graham schools also adjoin major highways, Community Drive, once fitted with a traffic light, was considered sufficient. Chuck Johnson approached the administration of the City of Urbana and was assured that rezoning would not be a problem. There was no requirement for secondary access, but the district would offer a 2.5-acre parcel at the end of Boyce Street if necessary. In that the property adjoined the former city landfill which had closed in 1989, the district spent thousands of dollars testing the soil prior to, during, and periodically after purchase – all with negative results for methane.

Because it would cost more than two-thirds of the value of the aging schools to refit them, bond issues were placed on the ballot three times – in 2004, 2005, and 2006 – to finance construction of new schools. The Ohio School Facilities Commission would provide 43-46 percent of the financing, depending on the year. The Urbana City administration enthusiastically endorsed the bond issues and even went so far as to appear in TV and radio spots. The city appreciated the value of new schools which would attract new business and industry and wanted to “partner” with the district to accomplish this worthy goal.

However, all three bond issues failed. If 139 people had voted “yes” on the last one, those students in elementary school at the time would have attended new middle and high schools – or, put another way, any child born in 2004 or later would have never entered the old buildings.

Fast forward to 2014. As Urbana has the second oldest, if not the oldest schools in the state of Ohio, the OSFC, now known as the OFCC (Ohio Facilities Construction Commission), agreed to provide 61 percent of the total funding for the project ($37 million). In November of 2014 the issue passed.

However, the relationship between the city and district administrations was hardly a partnership; it was adversarial. Put bluntly, it appeared that the Mayor and the Superintendent were not interested in “partnering” for the common good. One road block after another stalled the project. The city now required secondary access and insisted that the district pay for the extension of Washington Avenue, a multi-million dollar venture. The district argued that by law they were not allowed to finance city streets. After the city planning commission declined to give final approval to the project, the frustrated OFCC project manager told a school board member that she had “never seen anything like this before.”

Then it was revealed that some five years ago the Ohio EPA had required the city to “cap” the former landfill with dirt so that water would be deflected. The city complied but did not contact the district about the possible consequences. Nor did the city simply drill a few extra wells so that remaining methane might vent upward naturally. When the Ohio EPA appeared in the municipal building for their annual landfill evaluation, they learned of the district’s plans to build a school on the adjoining property. Since the landfill is 27 years into its 30-year decomposition period, very little methane is being produced, but the Ohio EPA suggested testing for possible lateral migration. Again, no effort was made to vent the remaining methane upward by simply poking a few more holes in the “cap.”

Now it would seem that moving the building footprint 1,000 feet from the landfill boundary will solve the problem, but the district does not want to do that citing the ongoing secondary street requirement. Attempts by the city, if any, to seek grant funding to extend Washington Avenue are very late to the project. Nor has the street department been asked to begin grading and filling the Washington extension, a cost-saving measure that could save the taxpayers many thousands of dollars.

Fed up with jumping through city hoops, the school administration has decided to purchase a property south of Urbana’s city limits. In addition to the aforementioned traffic issues, the potential secondary access of Campground Road is narrow and twisty, and Urbana Township has no money to rebuild it. Furthermore, the property has no water or sewer, and the city has indicated it will double the normal cost of extending those lines unless the property is annexed in to the city. Many cities would welcome such a project and offer to facilitate annexation and infrastructure extension. This is not the current attitude however.

The people have voted for new schools and are tired of the bickering. We have already lost a year of construction time. That means we have only four years left to take advantage of OFCC funds. The City of Urbana could alleviate the landfill problem by drilling additional wells to complete the natural decomposition process. The school district’s architects could shift the pk-8 building footprint a few feet to the south. The city should expedite approval of the Community Drive site and accelerate the grant search for the eventual extension of Washington Avenue.

Let’s build these schools before construction cost increases force another levy. This is about our children and the progress of our community. It is not about personal differences.

By Dan Walter and Bob Cawley

Dan Walter and Bob Cawley are former members of the Urbana Board of Education. Cawley served from 2002-2010. Walter served from 2004-2008.

Dan Walter and Bob Cawley are former members of the Urbana Board of Education. Cawley served from 2002-2010. Walter served from 2004-2008.