University Heights Mayor Susan Infeld told the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School Board that if they decide to close Gearity Professional Development School, it will “kill our city.”
“Frankly, it’s odd in an urban area to not have a public elementary school,” Infeld said at a meeting Monday that included about 20 officials from Cleveland Heights, University Heights and South Euclid city councils and the CH-UH School Board. “In an area that is urban with sidewalks, it is normal and kind to have an elementary school choice for your children.”
The meeting was called to discuss the district’s third facilities master plan proposal, and the two most hotly debated topics — closing the only elementary school in University Heights, and what to do with the vacant Millikin School.
Plan C, the third idea developed by a team of architects working to renovate and modernize the buildings, calls for renovating Oxford, Canterbury and Roxboro elementary schools, Monticello, Wiley and Roxboro middle schools and demolishing and rebuilding Boulevard Elementary School.
The current elementary schools would serve pre-kindergarten through third grade and the middle schools would house fourth through eighth grades. The high school would also be renovated. All but the historic core, field and pool of the high school would be removed, and new wings would be added.
Classrooms would be much larger, divided by glass partitions and garage-door style doorways to create a variety of large and small group spaces. Hallways and other unused corners would become learning centers. The schools' outdated heating and cooling systems would be replaced, and energy-efficient lighting would be installed.
Gearity, Fairfax and Noble elementary schools would close and be repurposed for community use and potentially house after-school care and activities, health care facilities and a variety of other programs.
Karen Jones, school board president, said nothing is “etched in stone” yet.
“Closures of school buildings are never easy,” said Jones, who is a University Heights resident and attended the now closed Millikin School. “If we were no longer listening, if it was set to be done, then this meeting would not be taking place.”
University Heights Councilwoman Frankie Goldberg said though she was “thrilled” the meeting was scheduled, it was “long overdue.” She called Gearity a “crown jewel” of the city. Plans A or B would have closed Gearity as well but maintained a PK-8 or K-8 program at the Wiley campus, thus keeping an elementary program in the city.
School Board member Nancy Peppler said a large portion of the community rejected ideas A and B as they called for closing several more schools, which is why architects went back to the drawing board and came up with C.
“...The elected members of this board did not sit around and make those decisions about what was going to be presented to this community as options. We left that to the professionals. We asked the architects and the administration and these group of people to come forward after they heard from the citizens review committee about what this community said that it wanted,” Peppler said. “…They came forward with two options, and this community said absolutely not to option A … and really not to option B.”
Cleveland Heights City Councilwoman Mary Dunbar also gave the team of architects kudos for applying the community's wishes to the latest design idea.
Jones read a portion of the factsheet distributed by the district about Plan C that includes the reasons for closing Gearity, Noble and Fairfax, which include student population in the area, cost of renovating the buildings and the size of the properties.
Infeld said without a public elementary school in the city, parents with children will not choose to live there.
“We know from conversations with realtors and abstracts from academic research that if we cannot have a public elementary school, parents with children will not want to move to University Heights,” she said.
Infeld added that because the population in University Heights represents 25 percent of the populations of both cities combined, it’s only fair that the city get a quarter of the elementary schools.
“To pay taxes and not have any public elementary school in our city is wrong … We deserve and want and demand a public elementary school,” Infeld said. “Plan C is not the right plan. We need to talk about Plan D … this is the wrong plan.”
Cleveland Heights Vice Mayor Dennis Wilcox served on the citizens facilities committee that included more than 50 community members. They studied the condition of the school buildings after the Ohio Schools Facilities Commission said the facilities were “unsatisfactory” or “need improvement.” The commission found that because enrollment has dropped, the district has too much space and not enough students.
Wilcox said he understands why the district needs to reduce its space from 1.3 million square feet to about 900,000, but a Cleveland Heights school cannot be a substitute to save Gearity.
“Cleveland Heights is the last city that had an elementary school close — Coventry. And I know it’s a hard decision for a community or a school board to have to make … and this plan, Plan C, proposes two more Cleveland Heights schools to be closed. So Cleveland Heights has seen a big effect on this plan as well,” Wilcox said. “…I don’t think closing another elementary school in Cleveland Heights should even be close to any topic of discussion.”
Peppler said it was "heartbreaking" that the primary benefit of repurposing the schools — creating centers for the community — was getting lost in the conversation.
Cleveland Heights City Councilwoman Cheryl Stephens said it all boils down to customer service, and the school board should consider the councils their customers. And many are not satisfied with the facilities plan product.
"Those of us who support great public education, which you have managed to continue to supply, which is one of the reasons that the entire Cleveland Heights City Council endorsed your levy last year is because some things you figure out to do really well," Stephens said. "And we implore you to figure out how to do this well, too, so we can support you in your next levy."