Coventry School Study Committee to Board of Ed: Rent or Raze

The committee charged to make recommendations for future use of the empty Coventry School ended its deliberations on May 20 with the group recommending the CHUH Board of Education retain the property and either lease it or tear it down.

Grappling for the bigger picture

The committee spent the first half of the meeting talking about the difficulty of making an informed recommendation in the absence of a master plan. Seeking clarification on just what the long-range facilities needs are, committee member and professional planner Mark Majewski pressed the district on the point, saying it seemed “there isn’t much of a picture to see how these things fit."

Committee member Kal Zucker, a member of the board of education, pointed out that although the board doesn't have a master plan document, the district has been strategic in planning its program goals and considers facilities usage on an ongoing basis to align with those goals.

When asked to provide statistics on current school capacity, Mr. Shergalis did not have the data at hand, even though the board of education offices venue for the meeting was chosen to allow easy access to information needed by the committee. Mr. Shergalis did say the district's square footage per student is by far the highest in comparison to other schools in the area and enrollment continues to decline, with a 250 student loss in the past two years.

Speaking to future use or potential demise of other buildings, Mr. Shergalis said the tenants of the Taylor Road School, a facility housing an assortment of District programs and other tenants, will remain in the building for the foreseeable future. Milliken School is empty and currently on the market, with no offers deemed adequate by the school board. District-wide preschool programming will expand in place or in currently available space as demand dictates. Gearity School currently has available openings.

The committee did not revisit discussion of facilities requirements for other programs, including an International Academy slated to open with 80 students in 2009, or the 500-student adult literacy program seeking dedicated space.

A decision is reached

Citing the need to focus on the task at hand because the bigger picture was "beyond the purview of this committee," facilitator Bill Wendling reminded the group their recommendation must align with the district’s priorities of fiscal responsibility and educational goals. And, if the committee were to become a landlord, he said, any tenant would need to prove its ability to pay its own way and be sustainable over time.

In the end, the committee adopted two options for the Coventry property: recommending the district become a landlord and solicit formal proposals over a set period of time from prospective tenants in the form of a letter of interest; or, razing the building and expanding open space. Either recommendation allows the district to maintain ownership of the land and/or building for future use.

The first recommendation, sending out an official letter of interest, is an open process seeking detailed and solidly supported business plans for rental use of the property.

Heights Arts, a Cleveland Heights-based arts organization, has floated the concept of reusing the building as a multi-tenant arts and education center. To date they have had preliminary talks with other nonprofit groups as potential partners, conducted an informal energy appraisal of the building, and received approval from their board to complete a more formal proposal.

The second recommendation, razing the property, the least palatable but potentially most financially prudent of the options, would eliminate $106,000 in annual operating expenses for the empty school. “Money that could be spent on two new teachers,” Mr. Zucker said.

Peggy Spaeth, director of Heights Arts, said razing the building “would be a failure to do something creative with a very sustainable structure.” Steve Presser, a merchant in the Coventry neighborhood, said it is a sound building and it would be criminal to tear it down.

Mr. Wendling pointed out it is incumbent upon the community, and not the district, to respond and to get behind any specific proposal that would put the building to new use. And, in the potential absence of receiving any viable proposals through the letter of intent process, the razing of the building must be an option as well, he said.

After discussion about the emotional and economic consequences to a neighborhood of tearing down public structures, versus the responsibility the district has to use its resources wisely, the committee agreed to recommend razing as an option.

The cost of razing the facility is estimated at $500,000. The cost of maintaining a green space and the Coventry P.E.A.C.E. playground if the school is razed was not discussed.

The committee's recommendation will ask the board of education to follow a reasonable timeline and set a “date certain” to come a decision, subject to financial review by the Lay Finance Committee, by the end of 2008.

Mr. Majewski requested the final report also reflect that the committee's recommendation was made based on district-supplied information indicating the board has no plans to use the building for educational or administrative purposes.

Ten members of the 19-member committee attended the May 20 meeting.

The committee’s final report will be presented to the board of education on Tuesday, June 17, at the Board of Education Building.

Editor's note: This article was amended on May 23 to reflect factual corrections.

Sarah Wean lives in the Coventry neighborhood.

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Volume 1, Issue 3, Posted 12:29 PM, 05.20.2008