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Logistics of Marietta schools levy don’t add up

The proposed transition from community schools to a single campus is one that I’ve followed closely and with great interest, and I attended the public information session and read everything I could about the proposal. With my professional experience in capital and community planning, I felt it pertinent to express some concerns regarding the planning, preliminary engineering, and project management components of the proposal. Everyone wants good schools, but it’s important to the community that we get this right.

The proposed development is to invest $85 million to build a single school. Google Earth Terrain Models reveal a ravine on each side of the Washington State Community College campus, which make this site less than ideal; industry professionals estimate $8 to $10 million going towards site development alone. One of the hills will need to be cut and dropped (filled) into the ravine, and because developing infrastructure on steeply sloped, clay soiled areas can present serious stabilization issues, the land would need to then lay for several years and be checked intermittently for stability. A retention pond would not adequately contain rainwater from heavy weather events, increasing the likelihood of water crossing over/under Colegate Drive and flowing down Hadley Lane (as is already evident by the clay stains on the road after a heavy rain now).

A preliminary engineering study should be performed for the proposed site to confirm its feasibility for a development of this magnitude. To move forward with an $85 million project without spending $50,000 – $60,000 on a Traffic Impact Study is irresponsible, as the outcome of such a study may prove that the proposed site is not appropriate for this project. I have been involved in capital planning, programming, and funding for more than 26 years, and such behavior would not be considered acceptable in any arena of public management. This study should be done and managed with local oversight by professionals.

In the Public Information Session slide deck, there is a slide stating that it would cost more than $85 million to rehabilitate the six schools currently remaining in the Marietta City School District; however, following slides state that 2 or 3 of those buildings will likely close. I understand that the Junior High/Middle School has structural issues and FEMA/flood plain issues which possibly plague 2 others. Currently, the proposed state match is 39%. When this issue arose several years ago, the state match was the same, but then, information from surrounding districts warned of the issues they’d faced in partnering with the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission – problems with materials, poor workmanship, construction issues, and water damage were just some of the headaches these districts faced. At that time, these individuals told community members, the MCSD superintendent, and MCSD Board that they would be better off rehabilitating the current school buildings and recommended that because MCSD was not getting an 80% or 90% match from the state that it may be better to do a 100% local bond and thus keep local control over materials and construction. Per the OFCC’s consultant, these proposed buildings would be “20 year buildings,” meaning that major rehabilitation of these buildings will need to occur at the 20 year mark to keep the building(s) serviceable. I have thus been unable to confirm that any of these costs were factored into the proposal, but it is concerning that we are being asked to approve a proposed levy for a 37 year bond note for 20 year buildings.

Luckily, Marietta is home to some fantastic examples of reused buildings: Marion School, the Municipal Court, and the Washington County Library continue to serve the public every day. Some local examples of good long-range planning and project development include the City Aquatics Center, the Putnam Street Bridge, the River Trail bike path, and the major streetscaping of Putnam and Front Streets in the 1990’s. These accomplishments didn’t happen by accident, but were instead part of an overall long-range planning process that involved the community.

Schools are more than buildings – they are central to the community identity and often act as neighborhood community centers. People are quick to state that if a community’s schools are derelict that the community will decay as well. I think that it’s important to note that the vast majority see great value in providing adequate schools and robust education for the children, and many openly acknowledge that economic development and education are probably the most import pieces of the community planning pie. But there are also 20-30 other pieces of that pie to consider, and I don’t feel that focusing on one and forsaking the entire rest of the pie is appropriate. The school district must develop strategies that do not further erode the Marietta Community, and the public’s value system should be part of the decision-making process. Community involvement would have been appreciated over the two-year planning period, and as we are being asked to make significant capital investment, it would have been nice to have been able to have some modicum of input.

Southeastern Ohio school districts don’t have the operating funds they need and they should be taking direct action to obtain even the basic funding levels required; these districts need to pursue the funds they need to teach, educate and get the students ready to compete in the world economy. An outcome of that lack of funding is the type decision making we see in front of us right now: put them all in one box, bus them everywhere, it’s just easier. This type of groupthink and lack of true comprehensive/community-based planning will further erode the city core, and it’s critical that we not follow this path.

These few, basic questions pertaining to land use planning, preliminary engineering, and project management need to be discussed in an open forum where the community has the opportunity to participate – not in closed-door sessions with only select team members, some who don’t even live in our school district, further isolating the community from involvement. There were maybe 1 or 2 citizens from the neighborhoods that are on the “Planning” team. I also believe that the proper, appropriate public involvement process – where the public agency directly engages the public to work on a vision, plans, problem-solving, alternatives, issues, and the like – was not used with this plan. This is already on the ballot and people are voting on this now when basic project development practices haven’t even been followed. For example, the “visioning session” took place the same month that the final proposal was added to the ballot – if visioning is the front end of planning, how did we arrive at a conclusion, master plan, bond valuations, and a ballot initiative all within the same month?

Some people will say and believe a public process was used; I don’t see it. If there was money to pay a visioning session consultant (Frank Locker Educational Planning), why was there was no money to pay for a Traffic Impact Study or basic preliminary engineering work of any kind?

There are groups and individuals in and around the City that are working in a professional and volunteer capacity to rebuild these neighborhoods. Resources include Federal, State and local dollars for parks, sidewalks, housing, and pedestrian/bike facilities with ADA compliance. The City and the MCSD have applied and received Safe Routes to School (SRTS) grants to help with improving access to the current schools. Now the plan is to abandon all this work? I don’t understand the conflicting planning strategies and efforts. And do we really want to build schools where the kids can no longer ride a bike or walk to school?

As with most things, a compromise solution is probably the best solution: pending the outcome we’ll probably have to close something, rehabilitate something, and build something, all while keeping some semblance of a strong community school system.

William McElfresh lives in

Marietta