(Yi-Ke Peng/WOUB)

Public Forum Addresses Closing of Athens Middle School, Facilities Plan

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A group of people looking to recommend a facilities plan to Athens School District officials heard from the public Tuesday night during a forum at Athens High School.

Athens City School District Superintendent Tom Gibbs, far left, speaks to attendees of a public forum to discuss plans  Susan Tebben / WOUB News
Athens City School District Superintendent Tom Gibbs, far left, speaks to attendees of a public forum to discuss plans for the district’s facilities master plan.
Susan Tebben / WOUB News

At the forefront of discussion was a press release from the Facilities Steering Committee that community members read as a recommendation by the board to close Athens Middle School in uptown Athens.

During comments at the beginning of the forum, Athens Superintendent Tom Gibbs addressed concerns about closing the Middle School.

“While it was in the press release that the preferred option (of the committee) as of the time that press release was done was that the middle school eventually be near the high school, that was the preferred option that day,” Gibbs said. “So if the overwhelming feedback is otherwise, then maybe that’s what happens.”

Three potential plans were provided by the committee during the forum, all of which included moving the middle school “to a location near AHS in The Plains.”

The first option would put pre-K through fifth grade in one school, grades six through eight in one school and high school grades in a third school. The second option included four schools, one each for pre-K to second grade, third to fifth grades, sixth through eighth grades and ninth through 12th grades. The third option would have two schools for pre-K to fifth grade students, and one school each for sixth through eighth grades and high school students.

No specific schools were named in the three plans.

The idea of rethinking facilities for the district actually started almost 17 years ago, when state education officials assessed the condition of the school districts’ buildings, the enrollment projections for that time, and the wealth of the district. They recommended renovation plans, which included work on the high school, according to Gibbs.

Now the state is using the same figures they found during the 1999-2000 work and the same wealth assessment as a calculation for the 32 percent funding they have agreed to give the district. But because the renovations happened nearly two decades ago, including roof repair and other work that typically has a 20-year lifespan, the age of the work would need to be factored into a new plan.

“Most of that work was done 16 years ago, so some of the work would need to be redone (in a new facilities plan) or done shortly after,” Gibbs said.

Because the state delayed funding projects for the district, Gibbs said, improvements at all schools were put off.

“The HVAC at every building is at or near its life expectancy,” Gibbs said. “The point being, something has to happen.”

Replacing one HVAC system costs almost $2 million, according to the superintendent.

“So, the question that was posed to (the committee) from me at the start of the (initial) meeting was…’if you started fresh with a brand new school district and you had this many kids spread through this many square miles, what would your grade level configuration be?'” Gibbs said.

One of the people joining the crowd who questioned the options presented by the committee was not a new one. Dr. Paul Grippa was principal at Athens Middle School for nearly 30 years, and he questioned the idea that new buildings needed to be a part of the plan.

“If the impetus for this was primarily trying to figure out how to best utilize the buildings that we have…and all the options you come out with is building more buildings? That seems to be counterintuitive to me,” Grippa said.

Members of the committee, which included teachers, parents, and even Athens Mayor Steve Patterson, attempted to clear up confusion and bring the focus to the plans presented at the public forum.

Judy Millisen, one of two representatives from the Athens Foundation promised forum attendees that the focus of the committee was on improving education, not deciding on buildings.

“You have to believe that the committee is talking about grade level configurations, they are not talking about buildings,” Millisen said.

The foundation is being used for information-gathering during the process of finalizing a facilities plan.

Patterson tried to assuage concerns by explaining the process the committee was undertaking to find the solution to the school district’s facilities problem.

“No buildings were identified, ever,” Patterson said, adding that all options for keeping buildings were put on the table during committee meetings. “In the meetings…I’m looking at three buildings, I’m looking at four buildings, there was an option that was six buildings or five.”

Susan Urano of the Athens Foundation acknowledged to forum attendees that information needed to be clarified about the committee’s role in recommending plans for students rather than fates of school buildings, something the community agreed needed to be done. Many in the public, like former Athens County Common Pleas Judge L. Alan Goldsberry, wanted to see the middle school as part of the discussion.

“There’s a lot of good things about the middle school and one of them is it’s a flexible building,” Goldsberry said. “It’s probably the most solid building we have, certainly more solid than (the high school).”

The committee and Superintendent Gibbs are hoping to have a “set of recommendations” rather than one set solution to present to the Athens Board of Education. Gibbs said they hope to have a potential plan to recommend to the board by February, so that the district can finalize a master plan in April and work toward getting a bond issue on the ballot this November.