Gold-plated desks, a swimming pool, and valet parking — these are not what South Amherst Middle School teachers are asking for.
On a tour of the 105-year-old school Thursday, we found teachers just want a building that isn’t broken.
They want windows that keep heat in and frost out. They don’t want wall radiators that run hot enough to burn flesh.
They want hallways free of jutting pipes and electrical wires.
They want a building that isn’t plagued by multi-level stairways, free of an entire wing that is inaccessible to children with special needs.
They want science classrooms with running water so students can prepare microscope slides and run experiments.
They don’t want to have to yell over the rattle and hum of boilers just so students can hear.
They want sound floors. We visited one classroom where a chair fell straight through two years ago where wooden planks had rotted. The room has since gotten a new cement floor.
They want smoke alarms and sprinklers. There are no fire suppression systems today.
They want water fountains and bathroom sinks where water doesn’t run orange. Plumbers were on the job during our tour, testing water in the building’s original pipes because of discoloration issues.
“We really have stressed that this is needed, that our buildings don’t meet today’s standards. Certainly, a building built in 1910 compared to 2020, they are different,” said Firelands Schools superintendent Mike Von Gunten.
He is pushing voters to support Issue 22 on the March 15 ballot.
It’s identical to the construction 5.7-mill bond issue that tanked in November in a 1,440 to 1,873 vote (43.5 percent for, 56.5 percent against).
If successful, the measure would generate $29.5 million to build a new sixth-through-12th grade school on Vermilion Road, replacing both SAMS and the 62-year-old Firelands High. The Ohio Facilities Construction Commission has agreed to chip in another $6.2 million, provided Issue 22 passes.
Von Gunten said he is “definitely optimistic” about the bond issue’s chances but expects the vote to be razor close.
If it fails a second time, Firelands will have just one more chance — an August special election — to get voters on board before the state’s offer evaporates.
If a new school doesn’t materialize, high costs are still on the horizon. SAMS needs serious repair work that won’t go away. Boilers are 25 to 30 years old and on their last legs, the school’s sewage treatment facility is pooped, most windows don’t open, the building’s electrical system is maxed out, and there’s not even enough wood left on the gym floor to resurface it ever again.
While fresh wax and a lot of work make most areas of the school look nice, Von Gunten said it’s the problems hidden just beneath the surface he worries about.
The state says that when repair costs rise above two-thirds the price tag of new construction, it’s time to build.
Von Gunten said a newer building would also directly save money.
New windows and lighting would greatly drop monthly energy bills. Shared kitchens, cafeterias, offices, and labs would cut down on duplicated services and personnel.
Right now, basic utilities at SAMS cost $187 per student each year. At the high school, that cost is around $150 per student.
“We’re not using that money to teach kids. We’re using that money to pay bills. And there’s not even air conditioning,” Von Gunten said.
Permanent improvement costs, which include building and equipment maintenance, are just $13.50 at Firelands Elementary. The story is different, however, at the older schools: At SAMS, it’s $109 per student and at FHS it’s $154 per student each year.
It’s also time for the Firelands district to go smaller.
A decade ago, enrollment was at 2,250 students. Today it’s down to 1,750 and by the 2024-2025 school year it’s expected to shrink to 1,550.
The new combined building would serve 800 to 900 students.
Von Gunten said he feels there’s been some traction in getting the message of Issue 22 out to prospective voters.
Still, there’s frustration from many who feel they can’t bear the expense. They want Firelands to find any other way to get building cash — just not higher taxes. “But that’s what we have,” Von Gunten said. “That’s where we can get money. That’s it.”
There are others who say they understand the need to replace the century-old SAMS but balk at tearing down FHS. Von Gunten said combining both under one new roof now will save an incredible amount of money in the long run.
And there’s also irritation that voters cannot see what a new building would look like before they cast votes, the superintendent said.
There are a couple of different layout and design ideas under consideration. Firelands board of education members have toured both the new Brookside high school-middle school building in Sheffield and a new K-12 building in Willard to gather ideas about what would best suit Vermilion Road.
Have questions? Several community meetings are scheduled leading up to the March primary:
• 8 a.m. on Monday, Feb. 29 at the Amherst Diner.
• 7 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 29 at the Camden Township Complex.
• 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 3 at Miller’s Ice Cream (lower level).
• 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 10 at SAMS.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.
Jason Hawk | Civitas Media Firelands superintendent Mike Von Gunten says South Amherst Middle School is at the end of its lifespan for education and it would save money to replace both it and Firelands High at the same time.
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