Drafting a lesson plan

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 29, 2005

Both sides are marshalling their forces.

One group seeking to win passage of the Ironton City Schools bond issue and levy will meet this week and set a date to officially kick off their campaign. The group that seeks to save Ironton High School is also gearing up for its campaign.

As summer slips into fall, the battle to do something with Ironton City Schools is moving into high gear. The question remains: Exactly what should be done?

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Why do anything at all?

Friday was the open house for West Ironton Kindergarten students. As youngsters and their parents trooped through the hallways and into classrooms, they dodged buckets and, in the upstairs corridor, a styrofoam cooler that was catching rainwater.

"West Ironton is leaking like a sieve," Maintenance Foreman Richard Carte informed Superintendent Dean Nance. He wasn't exaggerating: Intervention specialist Kathy Songer manned a mop in one classroom while substitute custodian

Shara Runyon pushed empty buckets into another.

"I'm running out of buckets," Runyon said as she noticed paint bubbling away from the wall. As she prepared to fix a drip-in-waiting, she pointed out the wet carpet Nance was about to step in.

West Ironton wasn't the only building with a leaky roof. After Carte visited that school, he went on to Ironton High School, where again, the roof was leaking.

But leaky roofs are only an intermittent problem for Carte, whose to-do list is always long.

"By the time you get one thing fixed, something else falls apart. Maintenance (people) do all they can do," he said. "But I don't know how long we can keep it going.

"We got the boilers put back together after they inspected it. They recommended that we replace them but we can't afford to so we just fix them. The electricity is a problem. We don't have enough of it for computers at Kingsbury. They called because the computer lab keeps blowing a circuit. It looks like I'll have to put another one in."

Kingsbury was built before computers were commonplace, so Carte's retrofit will mean running conduit to hide the wires instead of drilling through old walls. In this way, Kingsbury will mirror the other buildings that also have conduit on their walls to blend the modern make-do into an old building.

Electricity. Plumbing. Roofs. If it's in an Ironton school, it's old. Students and teachers at the high school will tell you the rotten smell they've contended with for years got "old" along time ago, but no one can figure out what to do about it. The most common assumption is that the smell emanates from a broken sewer pipe in the walls or under the floor. But they have not found the broken pipe.

"The EPA has given us a clean bill of health and the city has smoked us three or four times and we've come out clean. I don't know what it is," Carte said. "But I've crawled through every tunnel in this building looking for it."

If voters give their OK to a tax levy, Carte may not have to do any more crawling.

What is the levy?

As it is written, the levy would provide money for a new high school on the site of the existing building. The city's three elementaries, West Ironton, Whitwell and Kingsbury, would be combined into one building that would be adjacent to a new middle school at the site of the existing middle school.

New schools cost money, most of which will be provided by the state - provided local folks agree to pick up part of the tab.

If it passes, voters will get $30.28 million from the state to add to their own contribution of $18 million. The $48.28 million total will pay for a new elementary / middle school and a high school.

The bond issue calls for $18 million to pay for the actual construction, which will be repaid over 28 years. The bond issue has a 5 percent interest rate.

In addition, there is an annual one-half mil levy to pay for maintenance costs of the new buildings. It will be in effect 23 years. The state requires school districts that receive construction monies to also have funds in place to pay for the upkeep on the schools.

Chris Kline, chief deputy auditor for the Lawrence County Auditor's Office, said the amount each family will pay if the bond issue and levy passes is based on the assessed tax value of their house.

"The tax value of a house is 35 percent of the appraised value of the house, that is, what the house should sell for if it were on the open market," Kline said.

For instance, a property owner whose house has an appraised value of $40,000, only has a tax value of $14,000, would be charged

$107.07 annually. Following this formula, a property owner whose house is appraised at $70,000, and has a tax value of $24,500, would pay $187.36 annually.

The school money would be assessed yearly and would appear on the homeowner's property taxes.

Is anyone exempt from paying the school bond issue and levy?

"Churches, schools, anyone who is exempt from paying taxes now will be exempt from paying this as well," Kline said.

Little things mean lot

The $18 million local share includes $6.79 million for extras that the OSFC will not pay for.

The most expensive extras at the high school are a 600-seat auditorium at a cost of $2.3 million and $700,000 for facade upgrades to give the new building some of the finer touches of the existing building.

"The state has rules of what it will and will not pay for and at the top of the list

(of unfunded projects) is a fixed seat auditorium," Nance explained. "This is not just the rules for Ironton but for the entire state."

Still, schools officials contend an auditorium is one aspect of the old school local people are most fond of and may want to keep.

Also on the list of locally funded initiatives is an enclosure for the Conley Center at a cost of $100,000. The enclosure is necessary because the Conley Center, which is now connected to the high school, must be separated from the new high school under OSFC guidelines.

Also on the list is $200,000 for additional site preparation at the high school and $100,000 at the elementary/middle school site.

Nance said while most of the cost of site preparation is being paid for by the state, architects want additional money set aside since the existing high school was built on a sand lot and has a basement.

Accommodating the type of soil and filling in an area that once had a basement may be more expensive than what was originally thought.

The city owns an expanse of land at the middle school's site that would accommodate several scenarios for building the new facilities. Extra money would help accommodate any of those scenarios.

An additional $2.8 million is earmarked for additional classrooms and physical education space.

"The facilities commission allows a set number of classrooms based on what it will take to meet our needs upon completion of the school construction. These projections are based on a study done that took into account the number of live births, deaths, building permits and school enrollment over the last 10 years," Nance explained. "It looked at Ironton over a 20-year span and according to those projections, we're projected to lose in excess of 30 students a year in the coming years."

Like other districts in the area, Nance disputes those figures. In the past couple of years the enrollment in the city district has increased approximately 20 students each year and projections for this school show the trend continuing.

"When the board and I sat down with the architects and we looked at the template of what the state provided and laid it over our current programming, it was obvious to us, to me and to the board, we needed additional classrooms," he said.

Finally, an additional $500,000 is set aside for inflation and other upgrades.

Save the high school?

No one disputes that something must be done to improve the city's schools - the question that remains is how.

Most agree that the elementary schools have got to go. The OSFC regulations stipulate that, in order for a district to acquire state monies to rebuild or renovate, a facility must have an enrollment of 350 or more. Neither Kingsbury, Whitwell nor West Ironton meet that requirement and none of the buildings would adequately accommodate 350 students.

With its split levels, the middle school cannot be fully equipped for handicapped students and that is just one of its problems.

But the high school is a different story. A grass roots organization of local citizens wants to save IHS, if it is possible.

"None of us wants to place a burden on the people of Ironton by getting into a renovation project and then finding out it is bigger than anyone anticipated and is bigger than we as a community can handle," said local attorney Philip Heald, who favors exploring the possibility of saving the high school.

"But the problem is, we don't know if it can be done. We haven't really studied it. Our understanding is, there is public money available to study the engineering aspects and determine what the problems are and what it would take to fix them.

"One of the things I hear is, 'if you're not for new schools, you're not for the children and you're not for education' and this is absolutely not true. We want the best for the children in Ironton. We want the best we can provide our children and we want to possibly save a historically important building and by doing so, we would be teaching our children the value of their own history."

Heald said he understands that the building is old, in need of repairs and has a laundry list of problems - but he wants to know if they are problems that could be corrected with renovation?

Mark McCown is also on the list of people who want to explore renovating IHS. He stressed that the old building was constructed back when quality workmanship counted for something. The old building was the best that local money could buy and has managed to outlive many other buildings.

McCown also said he thinks those in favor of new buildings are confusing some issues.

"The thing I keep hearing is asbestos abatement," McCown said. "They say, well, if we renovate, we have the asbestos problem to deal with, we would have to encapsulate it and all this. It's my understanding that asbestos abatement would be an issue whether you tear the building down or renovated. Something would have to be done with it either way."

Those in favor of new construction say renovating would cost too much money. They cite local share figures as high as $23 million. Part of the problem, they say, is that the existing high school exceeds the state's square- footage-per-student allowances. OSFC rules require the entire building to be renovated, but will only pay for the renovation of the square footage allowable under their guidelines. This means additional space would have to be renovated entirely on the local dime.

Those in favor of renovation say it is their understanding the state in some cases may waive this rule if the district chooses to renovate an existing building. They also dispute the district's figures on the cost of renovation.

Heald said the whole point of his argument is that, maybe in the end it would be too expensive to renovate, but IHS is worth the effort to determine what all of its possibilities are.

The move to put the bond issue and levy on the ballot, he said, was perhaps a bit too hasty. Perhaps not all aspects were considered - but should have been.

"It's a beautiful building, marvelous construction," Heald said. "I just think it's shortsighted not to give it more thought."

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