BEALLSVILLE - Since the lights went on recently at the future home of a new Beallsville school, passing the construction site has made longtime teacher Brenda Lloyd's drive to work much brighter, even on the earliest, darkest of mornings.
"I get chills when I see it," said Lloyd, who has been a teacher in the Switzerland of Ohio school district for more than 30 years. "After all this time, it's finally happening."
Ground was officially broken Monday morning at the Beallsville site for the first of seven school construction projects in the district, a major step for a school system that state officials once determined had the worst facilities out of all 612 of Ohio's school districts. It took years of planning, pleading and ultimately the state's governor and legislators to step in and offer a special, one-time deal to district taxpayers to make the $88 million plan happen.
KATE YORK The Marietta Times
Beallsville High School students watch the construction of Beallsville’s new K-12 school Monday, following a groundbreaking ceremony at the site. The new school is part of a seven-building, $88 million district project.
KATE YORK The Marietta Times
Beallsville Elementary fourth-graders Heaven Harris and Caitlin Clary, both 9, huddle under a sheet as they take part in a groundbreaking ceremony for the new Beallsville high school and elementary school. Students were bused to the site for the occasion.
Ultimately, the Ohio School Facilities Commission determined its one-size-fits-all approach didn't work for the large, rural district and allowed modifications to the size of schools to be constructed, allowing smaller student populations, and a lowering of the local share of the project. In May 2009, residents approved a bond issue and levy that has them paying $33 million of the project over 28 years, a savings of $15 million from the original state offer.
"Switzerland of Ohio has been waiting a long time," said project architect Gary Balog. "This is a great occasion. It's almost like until you get to this point, it's not reality and today ... this is reality."
Hundreds of students, staff and community members gathered Monday at the site of the future K-12 building off Ohio 556, making their way past balloons and streamers to watch the ceremony, with the youngest students spreading out blankets on the dirt that will soon be their school and its grounds. Work on foundation and walls has already begun, and there were plenty of construction vehicles and workers in motion Monday.
"The citizens and the students haven't been able to see all the planning, but now they can see this," said Switzerland of Ohio Superintendent Larry Elliott. "It's a really exciting day."
There will be more happy occasions to come, with the next groundbreaking ceremony planned for Monroe Central High School on Nov. 1.
Site work there and for the new Woodsfield Elementary, on the same campus, is currently being completed, said Marc Ring, director of support services for the district.
"We're moving in construction trailers," he said. "Overall, that project is one month behind this one. So what we're seeing here today, we'll see there in just a month."
The next batch of construction is then scheduled to begin in April or May, when work will start on the renovation of River High School and the construction of new Powhatan, Skyvue and Hannibal/Sardis elementaries.
All the schools are expected to take about 15 months to build.
Beallsville sophomore Anna Jones, 15, who should be moving into the new Beallsville facility midway through her junior year, said she has a whole list of things she's looking forward to.
"Everybody's really excited about it," she said. "We'll have air conditioning, we'll have room, and when you turn on the heater, it won't spell like burnt hair anymore. Our building now needs a lot of work."
Academics have been greatly affected by the overcrowding and the deteriorating buildings, said Beallsville High School science teacher Kellie Fry.
"We constantly have stuff raining from the ceilings," she said. "This is a relief for the students because our teaching conditions right now are really sub-par. Now we'll have a science lab that actually meets state recommendations and will be what students can expect to see in college."
Senior Taylor Myers, 17, won't get to benefit from the new school but said he's just as happy that his four younger siblings will.
"Our school was built in 1927, and it's falling apart," he said. "There's no technology whatsoever. This is an opportunity."
It's an opportunity that nearly didn't happen for the district, which is the largest in the state in terms of land mass. It covers 525 miles in portions of Belmont and Noble counties and all of Monroe County.
Former OSFC executive director Mike Shoemaker, now the director of the Coalition of Rural and Appalachian Schools, said when he took the OSFC position in 2007, he heard about Switzerland of Ohio facilities issues about 15 minutes into the job.
"They told me I needed to know about Frontier's roof problems, the (possibility of combining the) Ohio School for the Deaf and the Blind, and they said we need to go to Switzerland," he said.
It took consultants, community surveys and those concessions from state government to make a project work, he said, crediting Ohio. Rep. Jennifer Garrison, D-Marietta, with helping to make it happen. Garrison introduced legislation that ranked schools based on current wealth rather than average wealth, putting the focus on real property value and benefiting the 2,760-student school district.
Garrison said the buildings were also one of the first problems she heard about as a legislator, when a group of district moms showed her Monroe Central High School, which consisted largely of trailers and no gym - the closest was 25 miles away.
"The state formula didn't work for this area, and we had to make it work," she said. "Kids' education today is about technology, science labs and math labs."
There were three huge reasons to see the project through to completion, said Elliott, and they were the students, the community and the jobs it would bring.
"Having a school is the heart of a community, and we're renewing the infrastructure," he said, before addressing all the Beallsville students attending Monday's ceremony.
"The adults who voted for this and committed to doing this did it because they believe in you," he said. "They believe you're worth it. This school is for you.