NORTON: For the fourth time in as many years, educators in Norton are asking the community to approve a school construction project.
Passage of Issue 42 on the Nov. 5 ballot would unlock $16.3 million in state money to build a new high school in a small town with no industry, where the school district is the largest employer and where homeowners are left responsible to support schools.
The owner of a $100,000 home would pay $136 in annual property taxes for the next 36 years to fund the remainder of the roughly $32 million project.
The goal is to shuffle students upward into newer buildings — from elementary to middle school, from middle school to high school, and eventually consolidate the district’s five buildings into four.
Cornerstone Elementary, a 98-year-old building encroached by the proposed widening of Cleveland-Massillon Road in 2016, and Grill Elementary, a well-water supplied school in New Franklin built in 1928, would be closed.
But the project isn’t simply about aging buildings or financially burdensome maintenance, officials say.
The issue is education.
“We simply cannot provide the opportunities other schools have,” Superintendent David Dunn told the community during a town hall meeting last week at the high school.
Administrators say lost opportunities range from the inability to create college preparatory science labs for middle school students to forfeited instruction time at Cornerstone Elementary, where students spend as much as an hour each day waiting in line to use one of only two bathrooms in a school with 430 students.
Cornerstone, the district’s original high school, is bubbling over with children. The fenced playground that cushions the school from Cleveland-Massillon Road would be cut by half when the road widens in three years. At the football and soccer stadium next door, the visitors’ bleachers hanging just inside a fence that borders the entire campus would be dismantled and moved, along with lighting on telephone poles as the road encroaches on the compact campus.
Inside Cornerstone, a hallway connecting the main office and classrooms is the longest, largest open space. It doubled recently as home for a book fair.
Students sprawled out on the floor, jotting down book titles and bottle-necking other students walking to the bathrooms.
Around the corner, boys and girls line the walls as class after class pile into the hallway. At one point, 96 students waited to use the restroom instead of learning in a classroom.
“We try to use a restroom schedule. It’s not always timed as perfectly as you’d like it to be,” said Kim Bruning, who navigated her second-graders back from a congested bathroom break.
In the office, Principal Julie Gulley said inadequate bathrooms are only one issue among many. Safety is a larger concern.
Periodically, students bump into radiator heaters and burn themselves. At dismissal, Gulley adorns a bright vest and wields a bullhorn, directing traffic and ushering young children onto buses as parents and high school students negotiate the parking lot.
To reduce costs, school officials have retrofitted lights and removed single-pane windows in most buildings, including Cornerstone. The same would be done to Grill Elementary if the bond issue fails.
But upgrading some aspects, including technology and wiring in many older buildings, have not been possible.
The district is cognizant of taxpayers’ unwillingness to open their pocketbooks in the past.
In 2009, the community rejected a combined high school and elementary project. Administrators dropped the elementary building from the project, knocking the measure down from 6.98 mills to 4.6 mills.
Still, voters rejected the measure twice in 2010, again objecting to the cost and also the proposed location of the new high school, which some said was too close to Wadsworth.
“We heard time and time again that Norton City Schools had to be located in the heart of Norton,” Dunn said.
The previous proposed location — a sprawling, uninhabited 97 acres — would have cost $1.5 million. Instead, the board moved to appease unhappy voters, purchasing the last of 37 acres in September for $1.1 million and knocking down homes on five parcels just north of the current high school.
The cost to Norton voters steadily has come down, mainly because the state is contributing $4.3 million more to a project that has grown with inflation from $31.5 million to $32 million over the past three years.
Opposition to the school issue has been less vocal than other measures affecting Norton voters, including a proposed sewer project in the Nash Heights area spilling over to contested races for City Council.
Some say demographics drive opposition.
“My opinion: There’s a lot of older people that don’t want to pass the levy,” said Rich Bosley, the father of two Norton students.
The median age in Norton is 10 percent higher than the county average. Median incomes in Norton are 16 percent higher, with more married couples and fewer renters on average than in the county. Norton also has the lowest effective tax rate.
Some adamantly oppose the construction of a stadium and auditorium, deemed outside the scope of education by the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission, and therefore not afforded by the state. Local taxpayers alone would shoulder the $7 million to build the stadium, auditorium and extracurricular fields.
That brings the total local cost to $22.8 million.
The plan purports to alleviate a cramped situation where the marching band vies for practice space with the football team, a 7-1 championship contender this year despite practicing on a 40-yard long patch of grass behind the high school, encumbered by a large rock and well.
In the current high school, theatrical productions compete for space with volleyball and basketball games. Folding chairs accommodate theater patrons in the evening and are packed away during the day for gym class. When the boys basketball team practices on the court, other teams are left running laps through the high school hallways.
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or email@example.com.