Sunday, February 16, 2003

School boom transforming suburbs

Rare building spree follows, adds to growth

By Michael D. Clark, The Cincinnati Enquirer
and Sue Kiesewetter, Enquirer contributor

Monroe is building a new $32 million campus for grades K-12. Ross is spending $50 million on a new high school and additions to two elementary schools. Mason opened a new $72 million high school last fall, and Lakota is already looking ahead to a third high school, five years after it added a second one.

[photo] Lunchtime congestion occurs daily at Kings High School.
(Michael Snyder photos)
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In Cincinnati's growing northern suburbs, an unprecedented school building boom is taking place. More than a half-billion dollars is being spent on new buildings in 11 of 18 public school districts in Warren and Butler counties, Enquirer calculations show. School districts that don't have projects now are proposing them.

And there's no letup in sight.

While Cincinnati Public Schools struggle to finance a $1 billion rebuilding project in the city, construction already is well under way in the suburbs.

Supporters say the new schools there will boost community identity and draw new residents and businesses. They call it a rare opportunity to remake not just schools, but communities, too.

[photo] At Mason High School, the dining area is filled with students at lunchtime.
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"Let's face it, when people think about moving to a new community, and when businesses look at a new community to relocate to, they are going to look at the school system," says city manager Donald Whitman of Monroe. That community didn't even have its own school district three years ago.

Whitman calls Monroe's new campus "a historic undertaking" for Ohio's newest school district.

He's not the only one crowing over new suburban schools, whose growth and academic success only fuel more growth.

As the population swells north of the Hamilton County line, newcomers say they're drawn by schools with strong academic ratings and civic reputations. Four of the districts have an "excellent" rating, the highest given by the state. Among them is Lakota, the only school district among Ohio's 10 largest to achieve the top rank. By comparison, Cincinnati and Dayton schools both are rated "academic emergencies," the lowest of five categories.

"A lot of people choose to buy here because the schools are so highly rated," says Mary Jo Reckner, mother of two young Lakota school children and sales vice president for the West Chester office of Sibcy Cline Realtors.

Space at a premium

Rapidly growing populations in Warren and Butler counties are making the construction spree necessary.

School boom in the north suburbs
In Warren County, Ohio's second-fastest-growing county, the boom has been led by the Mason-Deerfield Township area. Its population of 47,500 residents is expected to grow to 90,000 by 2010.

Ten years ago, Mason City Schools' 2,700 students could fit into four buildings. Today's 8,100 students are in seven buildings, including the $72 million, three-story, 379,000-square-foot high school that opened in September.

In Butler County, West Chester Township's population doubled to nearly 55,000 in two decades, and it's projected to top 60,000 by 2010. Liberty Township, which with West Chester makes up the Lakota Schools district, grew by 147 percent in the 1990s and is projected to more than double by 2010.

"There's so much farm land here. We keep growing," says Larry Hook, assistant superintendent of Springboro Schools in Warren County. He notes that Springboro is perfectly located for workers to commute to either Cincinnati or Dayton. "I don't see it stopping in the foreseeable future - at least for the next seven to 10 years."

Soaring enrollments are behind the school building boom:
Lakota Schools9,35615,849
Little Miami2,1433,028
Source: School districts.
The impact for schools is that space is at a premium, prompting educators to constantly look at adding classrooms, enlarging cafeterias or building gymnasiums.

Students talked about packed hallways and overcrowded lunchrooms during a 90-minute presentation last month on $43 million in proposed improvements for Kings Schools junior and senior high. Teachers now travel from classroom to classroom, putting their materials on carts in these schools in Warren County.

"I avoid buying my lunch in the cafeteria because of the line," senior Jenna Algie says. "I have to squeeze my way to my locker. We're squeezed like sardines in the hallways and late to class."

Kings parent Peggy Nicolai says she supports most of the building plans even though the improvements are expensive. "You can't have a premier school district and have lesser facilities," she says.

Voters, though, may be reluctant to approve the cost in May, especially since residents already are paying for the year-old Kings Mills and South Lebanon elementary schools, Nicolai says.

Even with a new junior high and an elementary school set to open in eight months, Lakota educators are again looking at the need for more schools, including the possibility of a third high school. A series of town meetings to present options may be scheduled this spring, Superintendent Kathleen Klink says.

Two years after opening a new high school, educators in the Little Miami Schools also are finding themselves again out of space at all buildings.

"We can't add courses because we don't have any empty rooms,'' Superintendent Ralph Shell says. "We've got computer classes in the band room using laptops."

Fueled by state cash

If thriving populations are behind the school building spree, state money is helping make it happen.

Lawmakers, in response to a court ruling, created the Ohio Schools Facilities Commission five years ago to direct the spending of billions on school renovations and new buildings. The commission sends architects to schools to evaluate needs, helps them develop building plans, then decides what percentage of the funding will come from the state.

That prompted Hamilton Schools to launch a 10-year, $176 million plan that calls for construction of several new elementary schools. Last August, New Miami brought all its students to one site, after renovating and expanding its junior/senior high school complex using state dollars.

Middletown Schools, responding to a state study, this month proposed a $144 million project that would include a new high school, three to six more new school buildings and renovation of the rest.

Experts say the economic impact of new, growing schools spreads throughout the area along the Interstate 75 and 71 corridors. John Harris, president of the Mason Landen Kings Chamber of Commerce and a Warren County resident since 1961, says the school building boom is by far the largest he has ever seen.

"The schools are doing a great job of staying ahead of their enrollment curves, and make no mistake about it, the building impacts our local economies," he says. Good schools help attract and retain workers who are essential for business, he says.

Local leaders also say the schools will help the Butler-Warren boom withstand state and national economic downturns.

"We are blessed with good, strong school districts in Butler and Warren counties," Rep. Tom Raga, R-Mason, says. "That, built in with the fact that we are both on I-71 and I-75, is going to continue to make this an attractive area regardless of the circumstances that the country is in."

Reporters Erica Solvig and Jennifer Edwards contributed to this report.

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