State of the Schools: Amherst super asks for patience amid big changes

Address covers construction to curriculum

By Jason Hawk -

Steven Sayers, superintendent of the Amherst Schools, provides a timeline for how a new Powers Elementary School will be built on South Lake Street. It is scheduled to open in 2019.

Jason Hawk | Amherst News-Times

Steve Sayers is looking for a little bit of patience.

The next few years will require it, he said Tuesday during a State of the Amherst Schools address, giving new details on how construction will move forward on a PK-3 school.

“At Nord, we’re going to be very, very crowded,” he said. That’s because of the big grade shuffle that will happen this fall after Harris Elementary is torn down to make way for new construction.

Nord Middle School will house around 730 kids next year, taking in grades three to five — so many that three modular classrooms will be needed.

Sayers said Nord will be at its fullest point since Amherst Junior High was built to relieve overcrowding brought on by the city’s big suburb boom in the 1990s.

The old Powers Elementary on Washington Street will be home to prekindergarten through second grade in its final two years, then will be torn down. The new school will keep the Powers name.

AJHS will get grades six to eight and will keep them even after the new school is opened. Steele will remain a 9-12 building through it all.

Two “transition night” events will be held to walk parents through it all as principals address the affect on pick-up and drop-off routines, schedules, and other day-to-day details.

They’ll be held at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, April 25 for Nord parents and 6 p.m. on Wednesday, April 26 for AJHS parents.

Estimated to cost $32 million, the new Powers school will be finances in part by the state but mostly by a bond issue passed in November. Since the election, a lot has happened, Sayers said.

GPD Group of Cleveland has been hired as the project’s architects and Icon Construction of Mayfield Heights has been chosen to raise the school.

On April 5, GPD reps started holding “visioning sessions,” meeting with about 35 people from parents to police in an all-day talk about what the new building should look like and what features should be a priority.

The design process is expected to take about seven or eight months. If all goes according to plan, Sayers said construction will be underway a year from now.

In fact, some dirt could be moved as part of early site work this fall.

In the meantime, Harris and the former Shupe Elementary must be emptied no later than July 1. District workers will begin removing furniture and teaching materials from Harris on the first day of summer break, while Great Lakes Church is expected to end its lease of Shupe and move to its new home in Lorain sometime in June.

Both buildings will be demolished in late summer or early fall. The board of education has budgeted $205,000 to clear out the buildings.

The Shupe site will be seeded and remain an open field until a decision is made to sell or develop it.

This summer, three other schools will get a wide array of investment. Heating and cooling systems at Nord will get a $1.2 million upgrade, several (but not all) parking lots at Steele and Nord will be paved, and a new Comets football scoreboard will be purchased for Mercy Stadium.

Finances were also a key part of the State of the Schools address.

Replacing Harris and Powers with a new school is expected to save about $500,000 per year in operating costs, but Sayers said the district’s health rests on the results of a levy renewal appearing as Issue 6 on the May ballot. Early voting is already open.

The levy, first passed in November 2012, generates $2.6 million per year. Renewing it won’t raise taxes.

Making his case to voters, Sayers touted Amherst as having the third lowest property tax burden among Lorain County school systems. Firelands is the lowest, and Wellington is second-lowest but also charges residents an income tax.

Education officials say that with the levy renewed, they’ll be in the black through at least 2021 — emphasizing the “at least” part — unless big state cuts come down the pike.

That’s not impossible. Gov. John Kasich’s next biennial budget for Ohio includes a school funding model that would actually slap Amherst with $500,000 per year in losses. It hasn’t been passed yet, so the state House and Senate may soften those cuts.

Securing the May levy would help insulate the Amherst Schools against a rollback. But without the local cash, Sayers said all-day kindergarten, fine arts electives, class sizes, busing, and pay-to-play rates are all at risk.

“Without Issue 6, we’re really jeopardizing a lot of the momentum we’ve built up over the last five years,” he said.

The goal since 2012 has been to keep the local tax burden low while enhancing educational programs. Sayers highlighted big shifts, including a new language arts curriculum this year at Steele, new laptop computers for the high school English department, introduction of a biomimicry science course in Fall 2017, the launch of tuition-free all-day kindergarten two years ago, creation of an orchestra, and a state-funded SAT for all Amherst juniors.

Next year, there will be 18 college course offerings for students at Steele. In the past two years, Amherst has led the county in early credits earned by high-schoolers taking free courses through a partnership with Lorain County Community College, saving parents a bundle.

Sayers said a well-rounded education also includes co-curricular activities, including sports, art, band, choir, robotics club, the Science Olympiad, and other activities.

He is also impressed with the community service projects adopted by Amherst students, saying being a good citizen, giving back to the community, and helping people in need are all lessons everyone should learn.

Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.

Steven Sayers, superintendent of the Amherst Schools, provides a timeline for how a new Powers Elementary School will be built on South Lake Street. It is scheduled to open in 2019. Sayers, superintendent of the Amherst Schools, provides a timeline for how a new Powers Elementary School will be built on South Lake Street. It is scheduled to open in 2019.

Jason Hawk | Amherst News-Times

Address covers construction to curriculum

By Jason Hawk