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Community debates future of IHS

There are few things in life that elicit a stronger, more gut-level reaction than someone's children and one's own childhood.

Question a child's ability or beauty and a parent gets angry. Challenge a person's memory of his youth or those things that influenced it and you're likely to get a similar response.

Not surprisingly, the decision to build new Ironton City School facilities has generated a strong reaction, with some saying new buildings are long overdue while others are furious at the thought of tearing down Ironton High School.

As November and the vote on a school bond issue approaches, both sides say they are determined to educate voters on their point of view.

The price tag

The total cost of building all new facilities is $41.7 million excluding any locally funded initiatives (LFIs), such as a new auditorium or other features not allowed by the Ohio School Facilities Commission. The state will pay for 73 percent of the project. The rest of the cost, $11.2 million plus any LFIs, will be paid by area property owners. The cost of the so-called Option 1, which would have built new facilities for the lower grades but allowed for renovation of the high school would have added an estimated $8 million to the bottom line. The school board has opted for all new buildings but do hope to preserve part of the high school.

An artist's drawing submitted last week during a meeting between architects and school officials showed a new high school that is built to look old.

Lead architect Bruce Runyon held out the hope that perhaps the school's entry way could be saved, with new wings built on either side of it. Architectural medallions such as those that hang on the front of the building may be saved or reconstructed as well.

Save our high school

When it was opened for class in 1923, builders and local officials hailed the then-new Ironton High School as, "the best that money could buy."

With its indoor swimming pool - almost unheard of in its day - its large auditorium and ornate foyer, city residents took the new building to their hearts and it has stayed there. Ironton High School represented the city of Ironton at its best.

Nearly a century later, plans to tear down the old school have hit a nerve among those who say it should be saved and they are willing to pay the extra cost to preserve this piece of history.

"The structure that is there has both architectural and historical significance," said Ironton resident Mark McCown said.

"They just don't build buildings like that anymore. I think it is short sighted to tear down a structure with such architectural and historical significance and simply rebuild when you could renovate and have a better building.

"Yes, the building has problems, but if the roof leaks, you fix it, you don't tear down the house. The high school has many issues, unquestionably."

Those 'issues' are a sore point with John Rowe, who graduated from IHS in the 1930s.

"They should have fixed the school when it started to go downhill," Rowe said. "It could have been updated as they went along. But they let it go downhill and that's a disgrace."

Rowe said he thinks tearing down a school that was built to last is simply wasteful.

"In England, they still use school buildings that are 200 or 300 years old and nobody complains. It's the same thing in Europe," Rowe said.

And that is McCown's point, too.

"There is a group of people who keep saying 'all the other school districts around us are getting new schools and we haven't gotten any.' But look: Rock Hill is on its, what, third high school since the last consolidation, Chesapeake is on its second. South Point is on its second or third. And through all of that, there has only been one Ironton High School."

McCown said he has no problems with building new facilities for the younger kids.

But the high school is another matter.

"The high school structure, for those who visit, either as prospective businesses or citizens, shows that for generations the city has been both forward thinking and still mindful of its past and its heritage," McCown said.

"It's not just that we're against the levy. In fact, we're for the more expensive levy. It's an odd position to be in. … If this levy is voted down in November, it doesn't kill the funding. The funding is there for a year. There will be other chances and hopefully when this is voted down in November, the school board will make the appropriate choice and elect to save Ironton High School."

McCown said some people he has talked to do not understand why the fuss and bother about saving the Conley Center from the wrecking ball but at the same time sending the high school to its doom.

"One person said it's like tearing down the mansion and saving the garage," McCown said laughing.

Not a high school issue

Jay Zornes, who served as co-chair for the Ironton City Schools Facilities Steering Committee, said those who discuss only the future of the high school fail to grasp the big picture: All of Ironton's school buildings are in disrepair and have been for many, many years.

"The issue is far greater than just the high school," Zornes said. "The greater issue is all the buildings and all the children and not just one building and five grades."

Superintendent Dean Nance agreed.

"It was a difficult decision. But they (the committee) chose Option 3 because it was in the best interest of the community. It was an educated decision. They realized that Ironton High School was a landmark in the community. I don't think anyone had any preconceptions going to the meetings. I don't think anyone went into this thinking 'lets destroy Ironton High School.'"

Nance said he has heard some comments, "but not a lot." He suspects most concerns people have fall into two categories: Concerns about the cost of the bond issue to individual property owners and the thought of tearing down Ironton High School.

Nance is quick to point out to those who fear the cost of

the bond issue that building new schools could be just the economic boost the city has long needed.

"This is going to be at least a three-year process. This is going to take more than a few months. It will bring in to our town skilled laborers, it will bring a whole new group of people who have had to go elsewhere to work - plumbers, electricians, carpenters, masons.

"This will bring a workforce to Ironton, people who will buy their lunch at McDonalds and Wendy's and Toro Loco. They'll get haircuts and things like that. Some may even move here or rent while they're working here," Nance said. "I think this could be the start of economic development for this town, the start of bigger and better things."

Zornes attended IHS, too. A graduate of 1985, he said the building was old then, its better days behind it. With its aging heating and cooling system, the nauseating smell that appears from time to time on the third floor and the electricity that has been added over the years to accommodate modern needs such as computers, Zornes says renovating is simply not the answer.

"I personally think we needed a new high school 15 years ago," he said.

Zornes said when he and the 18-member committee opted to rebuild instead of renovate, they took into consideration the age and condition of each building as well as the personal finances of the residents and the costs associated with each option.

"Based on the figures we received from the experts, it would cost less money for that option. With renovation you have a lot of unknowns that you don't have when you build a new facility.

Zornes challenged voters who will decide the fate of November's levy to visit each building and really look at each facility's condition and then cast their vote based on what they saw and not on their emotions.

"It's unfair to make a decision based on driving by a building and because it's the school you went to 30 years ago. This is not about tearing down the high school it is about educating our kids."

Staff reporter Teresa Moore can be reached at (740)532-1445 ext. 25 or by e-mail at teresa.moore@irontontribune.com.