Sunday, March 17, 2002

School, housing plans don't always mesh

Schools would move out where people would move in

By Ken Alltucker,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Cincinnati Public Schools officials envision a future of bright, new buildings that stimulate learning and draw families back to the city.

        But their $1 billion building plan has some potential risks.

        An Enquirer analysis finds that the plan to close, build or renovate 80 schools in the next 10 years could mean the loss of schools in some neighborhoods where the city wants to grow.

        While the current plan may be good for today, it may not address tomorrow's needs, the analysis of the school's plan, home-building trends and population data shows:

        • Six of 14 schools that will close for good are in neighborhoods ringing downtown, areas that currently are most rapidly losing school-age children. Yet these same communities are building more than 2,500 new homes that city leaders would love to see filled with families.

[photo] BOND HILL ACADEMY: Neighborhood parents don't want to lose their only remaining school, scheduled to close in 2008.
(Enquirer photos)
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        • Four more schools are slated to close or move out of the hearts of neighborhoods that have lots of kids who will soon start kindergarten. More than 1,600 Bond Hill and North Fairmount families with preschool children live near these schools.

        • The plan has had little to do with what community leaders and developers want for some of Cincinnati's neighborhoods. Except for a few communities, there has been little coordination among the schools, home builders and the city's neighborhood development plans.

        School officials see the rebuilding project as a rare opportunity to replace obsolete schools with places where kids can better learn and compete. Some $205 million in state aid that's available now may not be there long, they say.

        Superintendent Steven Adamowski calls the rebuilding plan a “no-brainer.”

        “We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to give students the schools they deserve,” Mr. Adamowski says. “The kind of buildings we would have would send a message that this is a city that cares about education.”

Remaking the system

        The proposed rebuilding project would result in the biggest school building boom in the city's history — remaking neighborhoods along with schools.

        All 13 of the city's high schools would be renovated or rebuilt. Twenty-three elementary schools would be renovated, and 30 more would be closed and rebuilt, either on the spot or elsewhere. Another 14 elementary schools would close completely.

        No one disputes that many of Cincinnati's public schools are wrecks.

[photo] CORRYVILLE: Schiel Primary School for Arts Enrichment would be closed about 2008.
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        Most were built before 1960. Seventy school buildings need new electrical systems, 69 need new heating and windows, and 40 need new roofs, according to a state assessment of school facilities.

        Most schools need new wiring for technology. Almost every school has hazardous asbestos that should be removed from tiles, insulation and other nooks.

        When the rebuilding project is completed in a decade, school officials envision state-of-the-art classrooms from Pleasant Ridge to West Price Hill.

        They say enrollment will rebound with families intentionally choosing city schools over those in the suburbs. Deteriorating neighborhoods will be vibrant with more homeowners, more shops, more wealth.

        “This is a neighborhood development project, maybe more so than any other initiative,” says Mike Burson, director of school facilities.

        But several neighborhoods, especially those near downtown, may lose schools in areas where planners are working to lure future families.

        Schools in the West End, Mount Auburn, Fairview, Corryville and Walnut Hills are targeted to close because of shrinking enrollments and poor building conditions.

        Yet these same communities are trying desperately to turn around decades of decline with construction of thousands of new homes and apartments. Developers are working hard to attract other amenities such as grocery stores.

        “When we're trying to attract people to our community, schools are closing,” says Dale Mallory, president of West End Community Council. “I don't know what signal that sends, but it's not a positive one. It could devastate the community.”

        The West End is Cincinnati's foremost example of the city's efforts to capitalize on a nationwide trend of people returning to cities after decades of leaving for the suburbs.

        Developers there are building 1,215 new homes and apartments in place of the former Lincoln Court and Laurel Homes public housing projects. The new community will be an intentional mix of middle-income homes side by side with subsidized, low-income housing.

[photo] WEST END: The city is promoting new housing to attract homeowners, but two of the neighborhood's five schools may close.
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        But the rebuilding plan would close two of five West End schools: Sands Montessori, a magnet school, and Washburn Elementary, which closed in summer 2000 in anticipation of the rebuilding plan.

        Heberle Elementary would be closed, too, but rebuilt in the community. Bloom Elementary and Hays-Porter would be renovated.

        Another 1,600 new homes and apartments are planned for Clifton Heights, Corryville and Fairview, with the University of Cincinnati and neighborhood economic development groups providing the financial muscle and sweat to pull it off.

        The neighborhoods already have embarked on a $100 million-plus remake of the Short Vine and Calhoun Street business districts. Developers hope the plan ripples through the area south and east of UC, drawing more families and owner-occupied homes.

        Yet the only two schools in those neighborhoods also are slated to close: Schiel Primary and Fairview Elementary, two magnet schools. Schiel would close for good. Fairview Elementary would close, but be rebuilt in neighboring Clifton, where Mr. Adamowski says most of the students live now.

        Dan Deering, director of the Clifton Heights Community Urban Redevelopment Corp., says losing Fairview will make it much harder to convince families to move to redeveloped areas.

        “I would like to see Fairview stay,” he says. “I am also aware of the realities.”

        The reality, despite redevelopment efforts, is that it could take several years before more families and home owners, instead of renters and university students, choose to live in Clifton Heights, Fairview and Corryville.

        In Walnut Hills, community and private developers are working on a handful of smaller developments that will add dozens of new homes over the next few years.

        Community leaders who spent the past year charting the course of Walnut Hills are worried that the rebuilding plan will eliminate the two neighborhood schools there.

        Windsor Elementary would close, and Douglass Elementary would be converted to a year-round magnet school drawing students from throughout the region.

A look at the 23 sites that officials haved proposed will close
        School officials plan to monitor developments in the neighborhoods. But until they produce more children, it doesn't make sense to keep schools there, they say.

        “This is not Field of Dreams,” Mr. Burson says. “We don't have the opportunity to build it and hope they will come.”

Losing schools

        Other neighborhoods face the opposite problem. They already have plenty of families but face losing schools or having them closed and rebuilt elsewhere.

        Bond Hill parents are fighting to keep their only neighborhood school, Bond Hill Academy, from closing. The school currently is in a central location in a residential area. It would be rebuilt in Bond Hill, but in a high-traffic, industrial area where 4.5 acres are available, as required by the state.

        “We don't plan to sit still and let this happen to us,” says Sam Nellom, president of the Bond Hill Community Council.

        Community leaders worry that if the school relocates, families might leave the neighborhood or choose charter or private schools.

        Just a year ago, Bond Hill's only other elementary school, Swifton, closed. Some Swifton students transferred to crowded Bond Hill Academy, and the rest went out of the neighborhood to Losantiville in Amberley Village.

        The blocks between Bond Hill Academy and the old Swifton have one of the highest concentrations of families with children aged 5 and under in Cincinnati.

        More than 970 preschool kids live there, Census figures show. The area also is one of just four areas citywide to gain more than 50 young children over the decade.

        The proposed new school site “is decentralized from the neighborhood,” Mr. Nellom says. “There is a longer walking distance for the students, and it's close to a lot of industrial sites.”

        Parents in North Fairmount and Westwood can sympathize. Both of those neighborhoods have large concentrations of children, too, and their schools also are slated to close or move somewhere else.

Hearing from communities

        School officials have heard plenty from parents and neighborhood groups since officials first revealed the rebuilding plan on Jan. 9.

        Twenty-six community meetings — 14 more than originally scheduled — have been held to explain the impact and gather input. More meetings are being scheduled daily.

        Officials stress that the plan is not final. Changes are sure to be made before May, when plans have to be sent to the state to receive state money next year.

        On Wednesday, the school board is expected to reconsider plans to close or relocate several schools, including Bond Hill Academy, Windsor Elementary in Walnut Hills and Heberle in West End, Dr. Adamowski says.

        The superintendent acknowledges that the plan is not perfect. But it's designed so it can adjust over the years as neighborhoods change.

        “If we are as successful as we intend, and our enrollment increases, there very well may be a need to have a couple of more schools,” Dr. Adamowski says.

        School officials need community support, not just to satisfy people, but to finance the plan.

        The state will contribute $205 million, and the school district expects to pay another $300 million. But voters likely would have to approve the bulk of the rest, about $500 million, in a bond issue.

        The schools have shown a willingness to work with neighborhoods.

        The school district says it will consider renovating Rothenberg Elementary in Over-the-Rhine, even though the state rated it as potentially too expensive to rehabilitate.

        In West End, Hays-Porter may become a combination neighborhood and magnet school — a plan pushed by the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority and a neighborhood developer, Community Builders.

        And parents, neighborhood activists and the Cincinnati Area Board of Realtors lobbied school officials into adding a new school in East End after learning of plans to close nearby McKinley School.

        The school district sees the East End as a model of what the plan can deliver —— a new school that also includes a health clinic, a museum and office for Cincinnati police.

        Parent Dee Fricker feared few students would succeed if forced to travel to a new school outside the close-knit community.

        “I didn't want to worry about how my kid was going to get back and forth to the school,” says Ms. Fricker, a single mother of three.

        But in most communities, there's been little collaboration between the school district, the city and neighborhood leaders.

        Mayor Charlie Luken endorsed the plan last week,saying such cooperation is essential to reviving the inner city and making schools the focal point of neighborhoods.

        With planning for the $1 billion project already well under way, the school board and city council now say they'll work more closely with each other.

        Cincinnati City Council member David Crowley campaigned last fall on improving coordination between the schools and city.

        “To this point, it's been a disjointed, ad hoc sort of thing,” Mr. Crowley says. “The fact is our community development department may bring something to the table that the (school district) didn't see or know.”

        Cincinnati Planning Director Liz Blume says the school district's flexibility is crucial to proper neighborhood development.

        “I hope we don't feel too married to that program,” Ms. Blume says. “While we weren't intimately involved in Phase One of their planning, we will be much more involved in the next phase.”

        Jennifer Mrozowski contributed

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Closing worries Carthage
School plans by neighborhood

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