HOWARD – The East Knox Local Schools Board of Education talked through the beginning stages of building a new high school during Thursday’s meeting.
The intent of the discussion was to give superintendent Steve Larcomb a consensus on which architectural firm the board wanted to hire to guide the district through the pre-bond process. This would involve proposing different options for school design and driving community engagement initiatives to get the public behind the district’s vision.
The board held a special meeting on June 21 to meet representatives from the final four candidates for the job. On Thursday, the board weighed the pros and cons of each group and narrowed the field down to two – Fanning Howey Associates out of Dublin, and Legat Architects out of Columbus.
After much debate about what the board should value in a candidate, such as being experienced and relatable to community members, the majority of the board seemed to lean towards Fanning Howey Associates. Larcomb took note and said he would present the board with a formal recommendation to hire the firm for pre-bond work at next month’s meeting.
The main role of the selected firm would be to guide the district through the pre-bond process, up until the levy bond passes. If the board then decides they would like to continue through the next step of the process with a different firm, it can do so.
Larcomb said it typically costs $40,000 or $50,000 to hire a firm for pre-bond services.
Before the board reached a consensus on the architectural firm, however, it spent 45 minutes debating when the district should aim to get the bond issue for the new school on the ballot.
The board discussed putting it on either the November 2019 or the November 2020 ballot, while also acknowledging it might take longer than two years to pass the levy.
The board seemed split on how soon it should pursue a bond issue. Some believed it would be “too soon” for the community to pass another levy in 2019, while others think it “can’t happen soon enough.”
“What I’m gathering from my end of the district is it’s too soon for a levy,” board member Matt Schwartz said. “And I’m not hearing that we’re against everything, I’m hearing it’s too soon.”
“For me, I think it can’t happen soon enough,” board vice president Derrick Steinmetz said. “We have some money here, I don’t know that we can talk about self-financing some stuff, I would rather we talk about just putting it on.
"When I walk around that school, and I see plywood on windows, it’s not acceptable. And it’s not conducive to learning. I wouldn’t want to be working in that school. Something needs to be done.”
Larcomb confirmed that the old end of the current high school was built in 1939, and it had undergone renovations in 1948, 1955, 1956, 1974, 1994 and 1995.
Apple Valley residents Gary and Linda Schworm sat in on Thursday’s meeting and told the board about the school’s condition, which has deteriorated rapidly in recent years.
“It’s gotta be very inefficient to heat and cool that building. My granddaughter graduated from there and she told me about how small it is, and how it’s a cramped space and very hot,” Gary Schworm said. “We need a new building.”
Board president Dustin Buckingham added he believes the building is beyond repair.
“Quite frankly, you just can’t fix the issues that that building has,” he said.
Although all parties present agreed the district needs a new high school, they remained split on how soon the bond issue should appear on a ballot.
Some board members believed the community might still be worn down from passing the last levy and warned against burning out those doing the legwork to get the word out for the district.
Steinmetz and Buckingham leaned towards initiating the bond issue as soon as possible, as did Gary Schworm.
“I would say to you, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ If it goes down, it goes down. It’s these people’s kids and grandkids, it’s for them and it’s for the next generation. And if they don’t want to support it, they don’t want to support it,” Schworm said.
“But maybe they do. I wouldn’t be afraid. If it goes down, it goes down. Put it on again, just keep trying. Eventually, it’s gonna pass and you’re gonna have a new building.”
Steinmetz also brought up the fact that in 2019, two board seats will be up for election. He was concerned that if this board does not move quickly to initiate the process of getting a new school, the delay may end up being much greater.
“I mean, another thing that I’m thinking about is, you have to look at the board that we have in place right now,” said Steinmetz, glancing across the table at the collective who all agreed that building a new school should be a top priority, regardless of when the issue should be placed on a ballot.
“We’re going to get a new (board), and they might not want it,” board member Kathy Frere interjected. “We do.”
While Schwartz agreed, he said the board should think carefully about the decision.
“We want to feel what the district wants, not what we think this board wants. Because if we make a bad decision and we don’t get elected, the next board’s going to get a bad sandwich,” Schwartz said. “We’re going to really have to use a lot of wisdom in how we go forward with this.”
Schwartz suggested the board hold public meetings in the old school building, and actively invite community members to attend, so they can see the matter at hand for themselves.
“I think if we can get it out there, if we can start getting some people… if we go over there where it’s hot… somehow, we need to get that visible to the community,” Schwartz said.
“I was just wondering if there was any way we could show the public what this looks like before we even put it on the ballot.”
If the bond issue passed on the November 2020 ballot, Larcomb said the new building would likely be built by the beginning of the 2022 school year.
While the board spent a large portion of Thursday’s meeting discussing the timing of the bond issue, Larcomb said that will be decided at a later date.
Looking at the big picture, Buckingham noted the district could gain support from the community because of its conservative spending and financial responsibility since the passage of the last levy.
“I do think people are behind us, they just want us to be responsible. I think that we’ve showed that with the money that they gave us when we passed the levy – we were very responsible with it,” Buckingham said.
“We didn’t go out and add any positions that we didn’t say we would. We actually used the money exactly how we said that we would. And we’ve been pretty fiscally conservative, we have a little bit of a surplus now. So I think by showing that we were good stewards over a few years, we’ve got a better chance.”
Buckingham paused, looked around at the board, and considered the significance of the board’s upcoming decisions.
“We’re starting a process that’s going to be years in the making,” he said.