On Development: Columbus must work together with school district

Rather than trying to grow with the city and attract more families to district schools, CCS appears to be selling off its assets – like a failing business shrinking into oblivion.
Stewart Alternative Elementary School, which is not one of the CCS school buildings targeted for possible closure.
Stewart Alternative Elementary School, which is not one of the CCS school buildings targeted for possible closure."Stewart Alternative Elementary School 01" by Eric is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 from Creative Commons.

It’s conceivable that Columbus City Schools will put school closure recommendations on the back burner after a leaked school board memo surfaced outlining a strategy to silence opponents of the effort. This pause would give the district a chance to develop a serious, comprehensive and long-term vision for education and facilities in a time of change. 

The City of Columbus worked more than two years to develop the first phase of its sweeping new zoning code, including outreach to various area commissions, civic groups, civic leaders, and residents. It released recommendations in April and then began two months of additional, intensive outreach before the City Council considers action next month.

Columbus City Schools won 55 percent approval of a $100 million school levy in November (roughly 40 percent for operating funds, and the rest for building maintenance). In late January, the school board named a 25-member task force to study data about the district’s 113 schools. After little more than two months of study, in early May the task force presented several different scenarios for school closings. The district planned a series of public meetings through this month, with a belief the board could act on those scenarios as early as June. 

On Tuesday, however, officials announced that a pair of Community Facilities Task Force engagement sessions initially scheduled for this week have both been postponed “in light of recent events with the Board of Education,” leaving the process in limbo.

While the city’s population has grown steadily for years, the school district’s enrollment has declined. Demographic experts note that the city’s growth does not reflect much increase in families with children. But how many of those newcomers will remain in Columbus long enough to have school-age children? And will they want to put those kids in neighborhood schools? And will Columbus still have neighborhood schools?

Several years ago, the former head of the Columbus Downtown Development Corp. bragged during a panel discussion on housing at the Fisher College of Business that the city was attracting millennials to live downtown, thus making the central city more vibrant. But (he said, barely taking a breath) pretty soon those lively young adults would get married, have children and move to the suburbs. But, hey, he added, if we’re lucky they might move back to the city when they’re empty nesters.

By all indication, school officials and municipal leaders still fail to see how the district and the city are inextricably entangled. But John Coneglio – who recently stepped down from the school district's Facilities Task Force – sees the connection.

Coneglio, president of the Columbus Education Association, the union representing more than 4,500 educators, lamented that the school task force did not take into account the city’s proposed new zoning code, which could add 88,000 households along the denser, more heavily trafficked thoroughfares targeted in the first phase.

“We’re in one of the fastest growing cities in the country. Why are we closing schools?” he said – adding that he’s well aware some of the existing school buildings may need to be renovated or even replaced. But the facilities plan should be more deliberate, less hurried. 

“Let’s pause this and enter into discussions with the city, and engage with the entire community,” Coneglio said. “We need to find out what the community wants and how do we make Columbus City Schools better and fit it with the growth of the city. They need to work together. The future of the City of Columbus is the future of our school district.”

While it may be true that many of the city’s newcomers are single and/or have no children, it also is true that many of the newcomer families are immigrants and refugees with kids.

Cranbrook Elementary – a school identified for possible closure in two task force scenarios – is the glue holding together two tidy 1950s neighborhoods sandwiched between State Route 315 and Kenny Road just south of East North Broadway. The school’s 277 students are well below the building’s capacity of 325. But 62 percent of the students – representing 32 countries – are enrolled in English Language Learner (ELL) programs. Another 14 percent are in special education programs. Closing such a neighborhood school would be damaging to the neighborhood, but it would be particularly disruptive to the families in the special programs.

A school is not just an “educational facility.” It is – or should be – a neighborhood nucleus. A closed school may make it easier for the school board to balance its budget, but it can weaken entire neighborhoods. During off-school hours, some school facilities could be used for community activities. Ideally, cities and schools should be able to find efficiencies in sharing facilities.

But rather than trying to grow with the city and attract more families to district schools, CCS appears to be selling off its assets – like a failing business shrinking into oblivion. It should instead try to grow, compete in the market, work with new partners, find new revenue streams, and fight off legislators who seek to privatize education on the backs of city homeowners.

Brian Williams is a consultant and freelance writer. A former Columbus Dispatch reporter, he is retired from the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission.

Related Stories

No stories found.
Matter News