This morning reprsentatives from The Cobalt Group were responsible for facilitating a discussion with the Patrick Zohn, Chief Operating Officer of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District and those community members and parents concerned and excited about the distrcits potential educational facilitiy offerings in downtown Cleveland. The session started with an introduction by Patrick Zohn to the various responsibilities that fall to the Operations Division of the district. It was interesting to hear him talk about how the Capital Improvements Division is one of many responsibilites they have. They are also responsible for Transportation, Food and Nutrition, Safety and Security and a few others. He spent some time talking about how before the year 2000, the district really did not have a very comprehensive facilities plan. It was the collapse of the roof at East High (which was only 25 years old at the time), that really shook up the community and made people realize that even though the district was failing, it was necessary to pass a capital improvement levy to make sure the kids were at least safe when attending school. In May of 2001 a $335 million dollar bond levy was passed to upgrade the facilities that it was determined at the time were in desperate need of repair. Those projects were part of an overal facilities master plan that was completed in order to access money from the State of Ohio, which provides significant funds to assist districts in the construction of news schools. One interesting fact is that the State of Ohio does its own enrollment projections for any district that is asking to access the State 2:1 matching funds for construction (actually its technically a little better than that, the State will fund 68 cents of every dollar) . Based on those enrollment projections, the State will put a limit on the ”number of seats” it will help fund within any particular district. The 2018 enrollment projection for Cleveland is about 36,000. Currently, the State of Ohio has contributed funds to build/renovate 24,000 seats. Which means, the district can only go back to the State of Ohio for 2:1 matching funds for 12,000 more seats before the State of Ohio will no longer be able to issue funds for construction. This is the reason the district wanted to go to the community to find out where the priorities are and determine how best to make use of the resources available to them. The first round of capital improvements resulted in 28 new schools, 7 major renovations and 6 more schools that are currently under construction. Current projections suggest that the district can build 4 more buildings before they run out of funds. So what do we do now. That is the question they are asking.
While I do feel like the session was informative, I am concerned about next steps. I am also concerned that the room wasn’t packed with dozens of representatives from the various schools already in the area of downtown and community members who want to see a more significant and intentional CMSD presence in the center of the city. There was a wonderful group of parents there from Campus International School; largely because the school is doing so well that they have run out of space and as of now the district has not been able to articulate a facilities vision, either short or long term. In less than 9 months the school will grow to sixth grade (the school is growing by one grade per year), and currently has zero additional square footage in the existing building to accomodate three additional classes (typically the school grows by about 80 students per year). Also interesting, while the district can use Capital Funds and get State of Ohio matching funds to pay for both new construction and major renovations, it is somewhat limited in how it can work with buildings it does not own. I understand why this was the case 50 years ago, but most organizations are starting to realize that owning property is not always the best and least expensive real estate strategy.
There is going to be another meeting in March after the district has had time to get through all of the first round of these meetings. I would love to see more participation from downtown residents and commnity members. I will take some of the blame on this. Perhaps I could have done a better job spreading the word and reaching out individually to people I thought should be there. I was just making the assumption that the word would get out through the typical school channels the same way word got out about the meeting at Campus International. It was, however, great to see people like Fred Geis and Dick Pace there expressing their support for a downtown School. They weren’t there for any other reason than to demonstrate that while they are seeing huge success in downtown Cleveland right now, if we can’t provide families a credible public school option downtown, there is a fairly low cap on their success in bringing new residents to the center of the city.
Overall, I think some good comments were made at the meeting about the civic importance of having a credible K-12 public school downtown and the realization that if you don’t continue to build on momentum and positive outcomes, they will in fact go in reverse. We’ve seen this at the Cleveland School for the Arts where there was a TON of community support for the school as momentum began to build, and then things went radio silent for so long I’m not even sure where the project stands today. I can’t bear the thought of that happening with a downtown school. This is an opportunity not only for the district to provide a world-class education within its portfolio, but also an opportunity for the City of Cleveland to give residents another reason to live in the city proper and not leave when their kids reach school age. Its a business attraction opportunity to be able to communicate to potential new area businesses that their employees have multiple public school options in the area. Most importantly its an opportunity to provide kids here in Cleveland and the region with a GREAT education in a stimulating environment.
Just a quick disclaimer, I’ve tried to represent things as authentically as possible and these are my opinions, not anyone else:) Also, for transparencies sake, I should probably note that I am currently volunteering as the chair of the Advisory Board for Campus International School. If you want to talk to me further about any of this, I would certainly love to learn more about your thoughts.