Plan C is the wrong plan, for the wrong price and at possibly the wrong time

Five minutes. That was the amount of time members of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Board of Education were willing to allow for public comment before they make a decision on a $200 million capital project that will be the single largest civic project in our community’s history. At the June 5 board meeting, I asked if they would entertain public comment at their work session on June 19, or schedule another community meeting on the final plan. The reply was “No.” June 5 was the last opportunity for public comment, except for July 3, the night board members will cast their votes. 

I’ve waited more than 20 years for the community to give our children the buildings they deserve. However, I feel that I have no other choice: I cannot support the current facilities plan. If it is on the ballot this November, I will, for the first time in 27 years, vote “no” on a schools’ issue.

This is not an easy choice for me. I am a second generation Heights High graduate. I served on the school board for eight years and on the library board for seven. I’ve worked on every school levy for the past 20 years and served as treasurer of Citizens for Heights Schools for most of the last decade. Recently, as president of the Cleveland Heights High School Alumni Foundation—a position I have held for 11 years—I handed out more than $25,000 to graduating seniors at Heights High. 

I want what is best for our community, something that is worthy of this community, and what I have seen so far is not it.

This is not the outcome I expected when the Citizens’ Facilities Committee began its work. I served on the Assessment Subcommittee, touring every one of our schools, from boiler rooms to rooftops. I saw things that made my heart sink. I fully understand the capital needs of our system. I applaud the efforts of Steve Shergalis and his staff to address the needs of our buildings on a limited budget. While I might quibble about how the Ohio School Facilities Commission determines square footage, decry its narrow-minded attitude towards single-purpose spaces (i.e., auditoriums) and its bias for new construction, I do know that our buildings need work.

I also served on the Options Subcommittee. It was then that we began our descent into the current quagmire. One member of the subcommittee was correct in saying that we should view this project as first addressing the backlog of more than $40 million in repairs. Instead of simply passing a bond issue to fix that list of repairs, we needed to address things on a systemic level. Instead of patching a pipe, replace it; if opening a wall to replace a pipe, ask what other systems can be replaced when the wall is open. Then ask, is this wall where we want it to be? While addressing the mechanical needs of the system, a corollary benefit could be to implement some of the new educational space concepts we keep hearing about.

Sadly, this has not been the case. Instead, the 21st-century version of the open-classroom concept has been driving the plan. An early iteration of Plan C made sure that these "learning communities" were built, but showed a large number of spaces (including gyms, libraries and offices) left untouched—not the comprehensive plan the committee wanted. I am told that learning communities are not the open classroom concept of the past, and on at least one point this is correct—open classrooms didn’t use garage doors to partition rooms as the current flexible-space plan proposes.

As a skeptic of the learning-communities concept, I have asked repeatedly for empirical data that shows the concept improves test scores in districts like ours—not overseas, not in private schools in Florida, not in wealthy communities in Michigan, but in systems like ours. I have seen none. I have asked what neighboring school districts are doing, or what comparable systems—locally or nationally—are doing. I hear nothing. In fact, I was told that what Shaker Heights and Lakewood do doesn’t matter; we’re doing our own thing. Correct me if I am wrong, but in those two communities people like the public schools, and they have better test scores than our schools do. Are we so arrogant as to think we cannot learn anything from them? 

In the end, I feel the Citizen’s Facilities Committee and the public meetings have been merely a charade to add a patina of legitimacy to this top-down process.

Even if I believed in the efficacy of the educational concepts, what about the buildings themselves? After squandering six months on two dead-on-arrival ideas, we land at Option C. But when I ask one question to two people working on this project, trying to reconcile what the district intends to keep and what it will demolish, I get three different answers.

There is a clear consensus among the public to remove the additions from the 1960s and 70s and replace the mechanical systems. That is what people want, but not what is proposed. We are told “historic cores” will be preserved, but this is playing with language, as only a few can discern what was built in 1926 and what was built in 1930. What this verbiage really means is that the district plans to keep the least amount of the original building in order to placate the masses—the people who live in this community, the ones who are picking up the $200 million bill. What will be kept of the original buildings is to be gutted and replaced with design concepts from the architect’s Little Red Book of design—this year’s trend in educational architecture, which is likely to be as outdated in ten years as the 1972 renovations were by the 1980s.

If the district is on a budget, and renovation costs 10 to 30 percent less than new construction, why not do more renovation? When we ask for more details about what will be built, we are told it is too early to commit to designs and floor plans. So what the board is approving is an idea—basically a blank check for $200 million.

The worst part of Plan C is at the high school, where “additions” from 1930 and 1950 (the Social Room) would be demolished and replaced with the same square footage as sits there now. The Cleveland Heights High School Alumni Foundation crafted a plan for Heights years ago that contains floor plans and drawings. Has anyone from the district asked the foundation about its ideas? No. In fact, the foundation has more floor plans and exterior drawings in its Heights High plan than the district has received from its expensive consultants.

We all decry the 1972 renovations, but aside from the five lost buildings and silly additions, most of that work was cosmetic: ugly windows, carpet, crazy paint schemes and odd colors. Plan C is butchery on an industrial scale.

The clock is ticking. A school board that has had very little input or involvement in the planning process until the last few months must now either accept a plan—whose only enthusiastic supporters are those who draw a paycheck—or stop and come up with a plan that those of us who will be here five years from now can support.

We now are approaching a lose-lose scenario. If the district goes to the ballot and loses, it reduces its ability to ever go back to the voters with a good project, as it will have damaged its credibility.  If the bond issue passes, the current plan would do far worse to our buildings than was done in '72.

I am not saying save everything, as I could live with demolishing two-thirds of our 15 buildings. I am not saying, save my child’s school. I want what is best for our community and can pass at the ballot box. Plan C is the wrong plan, for the wrong price and at possibly the wrong time.

Eric Silverman

Eric J. Silverman served on the CH-UH School Board 1994-2001.

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Volume 5, Issue 7, Posted 10:44 PM, 06.10.2012