We are the owners of our public places
If you live in the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district as I do, we have something in common: We are co-owners of a lot of real estate—13 school buildings (11 currently in use), a stable and an office building, which together occupy more than 135 acres. School-district property is found in every corner of our community.
This portfolio was amassed over the last 110 years to meet our high expectations for serving the educational needs of the children of our ever-evolving community. These buildings, as small-town Texas superintendent John Kuhn so eloquently put it, “are not just schools, they’re touchstones. They’re testaments to our local values—monuments to community.” They belong to us and we are responsible for their maintenance and quality.
Our school buildings and the land they occupy have long, proud histories filled with the personal stories of thousands of young people profoundly affected by time spent within their walls. They have shaped us as individuals and as a community, and they have contributed to our democracy.
Our school buildings were once up to date and a great source of pride. During my 17 years as the director of Reaching Heights, I was in and out of all the buildings and saw that they were in need of improvement. Each one suffers from problems too big to patch over one more time, and too significant to ignore. The buildings fall short of offering the nurturing, safe and healthy environment our students deserve.
Our school facilities need a boost—a big boost—and soon it will be up to us to decide what kind of investment we will make in this public asset. Our community has a reputation for valuing public education. I hope we don’t defer the investment needed to make our schools places where our children can flourish, and that demonstrate our community values.
I walk. During my exercise hour, I visit different neighborhoods looking for promising paint combinations, gardening options and possibilities for transforming my front yard into something I don’t have to mow. It’s a thrill to see the creative ways residents express their values through the appearance of their homes.
Like tours offered by realtors to introduce potential buyers to their housing options, my walk-by “windshield" survey also reveals whether people are investing in their homes. It’s a gauge of how a neighborhood is doing. How individuals maintain their properties affects the feel of a street, the willingness of neighbors to invest, resale values and the level of demand for homes in the area. While homeownership is private, we don’t have sole control over our home’s value. Our individual decisions affect our neighbors and vice versa. We are interconnected!
Similarly, public spaces affect the value of a neighborhood and a community. The quality of the public infrastructure communicates strong messages about how the community values public institutions. A review of the appearance of our public buildings can shape perceptions of the health of our institutions. The appearance of our school facilities offers the most basic evidence of the educational opportunities available therein.
As co-owners of our public schools we face a crucial decision that will affect all of us. We will determine the stature of our public schools and, in so doing, affect the stature of our community.
We are the stewards of an inspired public commitment to education that has served our community well for generations. We owe it to those who went before and those yet to come to uphold this tradition. It benefits everyone to do so.
Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights and the former director of Reaching Heights. She serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.