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Levy fails, district faces challenge

May 15, 2014
By J.T. Whitehouse , The Town Crier

On May 6, voters turned down a 4.1 mill bond issue that would have enabled the construction of a new Fitch High School. School officials are now faced with maintaining the outdated 46-year-old structure.

''We will keep putting a band aid on it,'' said Superintendent Vince Colaluca. ''We will eventually be back to taxpayers.''

He said the state funding that required the bond levy for a local match is now gone. Austintown Fitch was on a list of schools that were eligible for the state funding to replace it with a new building. Austintown has now been bumped to the bottom of that list. The money that was set aside for a new Fitch will now be offered to another school district.

''Today our district stands at a crossroads. We respect the community's decision and will continue to serve you with wholehearted commitment,'' Colaluca said in a press release. ''As we face these challenges, we will have to make difficult decisions. However, we will not shrink from our focus on our students or our mission and vision for them.''

Mal Culp, supervisor of facilities and operations for the district said the biggest challenge is trying to keep old, inefficient systems operating. One example he gave was the air conditioning system at Fitch. When technology such as computers and communications equipment was brought into the school, it created a problem for the old air conditioning system. He said several roof-mounted air conditioners had to be installed over those rooms to keep the temperatures reasonable. He also said the gym area remains without air conditioning.

Another concern is the roof at Fitch, which is a flat roof that has been developing leaks. At present it is being patched, but Culp said there is no danger of it collapsing like the ceiling did at the former middle school building on Mahoning Avenue. Culp said there is a way to fix the roof, but at a cost.

''We could install a slightly sloped roof at Fitch that would channel the water to proper drainage,'' he said. ''But that would cost a couple million.''

According to district officials, in addition to the air conditioning and roof, Fitch also has a problem with the original design and updated standards. One problem is the stairwells. New construction requires all stairwells to have an exit to the outside at the bottom, however, the high school stair wells exit in the center of the building.

''You could be walking down into the middle of it,'' Culp said.

According to Culp, there is no sprinkler system and to install one would be very expensive. Concerning natural lighting in classrooms, the high school was built in the mid-1960s with several second-floor classrooms as interior rooms with no access to natural light.

Culp also stated that the original hall lighting installed when the school was new, had no on-off switch.

''At that time there were three shifts of maintenance people working 24-hours round the clock,'' he said. ''The lighting was continuously on and no switch was installed to shut the lights off. Back then electricity was cheap.''

He said one thing he was able to do with his budget was to install a switch for each main floor. When you turn it off, the entire floor goes dark. It is hard when there is an event in one section of the building because all the lights are on.

These items were part of the audit officials sent to the Ohio Schools Facilities Commission to determine if the district could qualify for funding for a new facility.

Culp said currently, any immediate major repairs to any of the systems would have to come from the general fund if it exceeded the normal maintenance budget. He said it would be nice to have a permanent improvement budget like Boardman has so major work could be handled.

Colaluca said he doesn't foresee going back on the ballot in November because the state funding will no longer be available.

''We are now a lapsed district,'' he said. ''We can still apply for state funds, but we would have to come up with our share first, then hope there are state funds available at that time.''

Colaluca said the state has a list of school buildings eligible for replacement, but when matching levies don't pass, the funds held for that district are passed on to the next district on the list. That list has now grown to include universities, colleges and charter schools. With the bigger list, a may be a long time before the funding, if ever, comes back for Austintown.



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