Reporter's Notebook

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Facilities Gathering Highlights Importance Of Involving the Public

How should school buildings look and feel as the United States approaches what many experts believe will be a golden era of school construction? Educators gathered here recently to try answering that question.

The issue is a vital one: A recent report from the National Center for Education Statistics estimated that the nation's schools need $127 billion in repairs and construction. ("NCES Report Pegs School Repair Costs at $127 Billion," July 12, 2000.)

In Ohio, Gov. Bob Taft has proposed spending $10.2 billion over the next 12 years to upgrade his state's schools. Combined with local matches, his plan would pump a total of $23 billion into school construction.

Ohio, like New Jersey, which last month saw a $12 billion school facilities plan signed into law, is under a court order to make vast improvements to its school buildings. Some critics of the Ohio plan say the governor's program would help, but still wouldn't meet all existing needs. The Cleveland district, for example, estimates its facilities needs at $1 billion.

At the federal level, efforts are under way in Congress and in the Clinton administration to provide more money for school construction. U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley spoke at the conference here and called for Congress to move quickly on a bill that would provide $25 billion in construction money to schools.

Chad P. Wick

"It makes great sense. Now's the time to do it," Mr. Riley said in an interview after his speech at the July 13 gathering. Architects, superintendents, and Mr. Riley called on local leaders to involve the public deeply in planning school facilities, and to build schools that are more than just classrooms and school offices.

"Ohio is undertaking the most massive effort announced in the country for school construction. With that massive effort comes an opportunity to think about things in new ways," said Chad P. Wick, the president and chief executive officer of the KnowledgeWorks Foundation, a Cincinnati-based nonprofit group that co-sponsored the conference. The foundation plans to award $300,000 in grants to help districts better involve communities.

"We envision that what we will see in schools two or three decades from now will be completely different from what we see today," agreed Ronald H. Fanning, the chairman of Fanning/Howey Associates, an architectural firm in Celina, Ohio.

Schools will occupy more of a central role in communities, he predicted, serving as places where people of all ages can gather to learn.

School leaders and design experts from Ohio and across the country presented an array of ideas and opinions about how to design schools and what the public's role should be in planning for them.

Charles M. Irish, the superintendent of the 6,400-student Medina, Ohio, schools in suburban Cleveland, said his district had asked the public for help, only to find frustration over divided opinions. But three years of debate eventually led to stronger community support for school construction and to partnerships between the schools and a local arts group, a hospital, and other organizations, Mr. Irish said. "A community must work through its understandings of the issue," he added, and that can take time.

John M. Simmons, the superintendent of the 2,500-student Vinton County schools in rural southeastern Ohio, reminded educators to include students in facilities planning. He recalled how a high school student from his community had effectively challenged a state lawmaker during a public meeting about funding for school construction, and he said that students have been involved in the planning for a new school in Vinton County.

Sandra Monfort

"We should respect and listen to the students, because it is the right thing to do—and because they have power," he said.

Sandra Monfort, the school board president in 5,700-student Lima, Ohio, said her board's willingness to involve the community in discussions about building schools had renewed public trust in the schools. She said a man told her that he disagreed with the board's decision on where to build a new high school, but vowed his support "because the board cared enough to find out what he thought."

Joe Nathan, the director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota, told the group that facilities can play a role in improving downtrodden urban and rural schools. Research shows that clean, impressive buildings can help improve student test scores, he noted.

In St. Paul, Minn., Principal Gloria Kumagi's school occupies part of an old warehouse beside a freeway. The Museum Magnet School and two other schools also share the building with a social services office, a day-care center, and early-childhood classes. The unusual setup, in partnership with the Science Museum of Minnesota, has many benefits but also a few hitches, Ms. Kumagi said. For example, parking is a problem, as is security, although the staff is careful to stop anyone in the huge building not wearing an employee's badge—matters to consider when building a less-than-traditional school, the principal noted.

Sue Robertson, the president of DeJong and Associates architects in Dublin, Ohio, talked about how her firm was involving students and employees in the design of McKinley Technology High School in the nation's capital. Citizens' advice on the development of the District of Columbia school may lead to an arrangement by which some of the school—perhaps 100,000 square feet—could be leased to computer companies that could employ students.

"It's a work in progress," Ms. Robertson said. "We'll see how it all turns out."

—Alan Richard

Vol. 19, Issue 43, Pages 10-11

Published in Print: August 2, 2000, as Reporter's Notebook
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