IN BAD SHAPE: Harris at center of school construction question

By Jason Hawk -

<p style="text-align: right;">Jason Hawk | Amherst News-Times Principal Beth Schwartz points to dark brown stains on the ceiling tiles along the east side of her building due to roof leaks.

Jason Hawk | Amherst News-Times Principal Beth Schwartz points to dark brown stains on the ceiling tiles along the east side of her building due to roof leaks.

Tap, tap, tap — Mike Walters makes several laps every day through the halls of Harris Elementary School, touching every thermostat.

Head custodian since 2003, he doesn’t do it for fun. Walters’ rounds “wake up” a malfunctioning thermostat system that, if left too long, will hibernate and shut down the heating and cooling system.

“Nobody can figure out why it does that. It’s broken and no one seems to know how or where,” he said. “But we know it turns off the heat, and in the winter, that’s really bad, you know?”

It’s not uncommon for heating, ventilation, and air conditioning units to break down in the course of a week, said Harris principal Beth Schwartz, who on Wednesday took us on a tour highlighting costly repairs her building needs.

The South Lake Street school is at the center of a push to build a new Amherst elementary, which will appear on the Nov. 8 ballot as Issue 21. Educators are asking voters to extend by 12 years a bond issue that was originally passed to pay for construction of Amherst Junior High.

If it passes, Issue 21 would allow Amherst to grab a $14 million offer from the state to help cover construction costs.

Superintendent Steven Sayers, who walked the halls with us, said repairing Powers and Harris elementaries will be almost as expensive as tearing both down and building a larger PK-5 school where Harris now stands.

A new building would also be far more efficient, pushing down electric, heating, and water bills. Combining two schools under one roof would cut costs in other ways — one cafeteria instead of two, one principal instead of two, and so on.

The expected savings are around $500,000 per year, Sayers said.

If voters choose to shy from Issue 21, the district will still end up spending big bucks on Harris, starting with a new roof. The existing one has been patched and repatched and is now to the point where a complete tear-off and replacement is needed, said Walters.

Asked to rate the condition of the roof on a one-to-10 scale with “like brand new” at the top, he without hesitation offered up a “zero.”

Brown-stained ceiling tiles are common on the east side of the building, where the roof is in bad condition. Leaks have let rain water in to destroy magazines in the library or pool on carpets. One classroom even has a designated waste bin for catching dripping water.

“We’ve had parents voice concerns,” Schwartz said. “They wanted to make sure their kids weren’t breathing in mold.” There’s no evidence of mold in the building, which undergoes yearly checks by the Lorain County General Health District.

Plumbing is also a worry. Round fountain sinks are original to the 46-year-old building and last year sprang bad leaks.

Since replacement parts aren’t made anymore, custom fittings had to be made.

During that time, water leaked across the floor to a makeshift server room closeted between the boys and girls bathrooms, threatening electronics inside.

Space is the most pressing concern, said Schwartz.

Harris’ combination gym and cafeteria makes for a scheduling nightmare. Its parking lot is tiny. Schwartz’s wish list is topped by more classrooms but also includes dedicated storage rooms so wheeled closet units would no longer clog hallways. One roughly 80-square-foot room serves as a closet or a classroom, depending on the year and enrollment.

Home to Amherst’s third and fourth graders, Harris boasts 580 students this year, an increase of about 30 since 2015. It stands out in that regard, while other schools are seeing shrinking enrollment, and Schwartz even had to hire an additional third grade teacher this fall.

The ideal number of students for Harris, based on the space it offers, would be 400, she said.

Right now, there’s overflow.

In back of the school sit three modular units. Two house homerooms where about 100 students start every day; the other is an art classroom, so every student has to walk outside at least once a week.

The kids don’t mind — at least not when weather’s warm — but Schwartz said it does make them vulnerable in the event of a threat to the school.

In today’s day and age, shooters and kidnappers aren’t out of the question. In fact, there have been two reports in the past month of attempted lurings in Elyria by someone in a van, and another instance when a person tried to coax students into a car in Oberlin.

And Schwartz admits that while locks and heavy doors protect kids inside the main school building, there’s nothing to stop an intruder from walking straight back to the modular units.

Of a more practical day-to-day concern, there aren’t bathrooms outside. “The restroom is the toughest part,” said Schwartz. “They’ve learned to do scheduled restroom breaks but it definitely cuts down on instructional time because there’s travel time to and from the building.”

Walters said throwing money at Harris — whether through extensive repairs or additions — won’t make all its problems go away. The way the school was built prevents it from ever being perfect.

“The thing about Harris is when it was constructed it was an open-concept school. It’s been added to in parts and pieces,” said Schwartz.

Back in 1970, Harris rode the open-concept wave, which didn’t use walls inside to separate classrooms and other learning spaces. At the time, the experimental concept was just five years old and pitched a return to the ideals of a one-room schoolhouse, where students of all levels could move around and learn.

When it didn’t work out so well, open-concept schools, including Harris, were retrofitted with interior walls.

Those walls, still around today, and thin and don’t block sound well, which makes for distractions.

That wasn’t the only problem. Walters said compartmentalizing the once-open space had a disastrous unintended consequence — it backloaded the air pressure inside the heating and cooling system until the ducts started to blow out.

That was largely fixed back in the 1980s and 1990s with a Frankenstein’s monster of new air ducts. But it’s never quite solved the problem of properly balancing the temperature in each zone of the school, Walters said.

“There is no way to ever ‘fix’ this school to the way it needs to be,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how much you spend.”

If Issue 21 passes, a new Powers Elementary School would be raised where Harris is today, next to AJHS. Construction would likely be underway this time next year, with grades shuffled among the district’s other buildings and a few more modulars through 2016-2017.

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

Jason Hawk | Amherst News-Times Principal Beth Schwartz points to dark brown stains on the ceiling tiles along the east side of her building due to roof leaks.

Jason Hawk | Amherst News-Times Principal Beth Schwartz points to dark brown stains on the ceiling tiles along the east side of her building due to roof leaks.

By Jason Hawk