Superintendent Discusses Possible Referendum with City Council

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1On Monday, August 25, Milford School District Superintendent, Dr. Phyllis Kohel, provided information to Milford City Council about the referendum the district is proposing for the fall. Dr. Kohel said that she and School Board President, Marvin Schelhouse wanted to inform council of the options before they went out in the community to gain support for a new high school and operations referendum.

“As you know, we sought a referendum in March for a new Middle School and for operations. Both referendums failed,” Dr. Kohel explained. “Under that plan, demolition of the old school would have been necessary. In discussions at the polls and since the referendum defeat, we learned that the community has a strong emotional connection to the building, which is why many voted against it.” Dr. Kohel explained that the district considered going back out only for the operations portion of the budget in order to get more information regarding what could be done with the old middle school.

Dr. Kohel explained that in since the last day of school on June 6, the district has had 149 students enroll, mostly at the Middle School and elementary school level. This has meant that Ross Elementary is within 21 students of their capacity of 650, while the Milford Central Academy is over capacity. The school is rated for 1,000 students and there are 1,046 enrolled. The district has moved four modular behind the school to house the extra students and may be required to move some students into high school classrooms, something the principal of the school would prefer not doing.

“We have not had a big immigration hit like districts south of us,” Dr. Kohel explained. “However, we start school earlier than other districts so many new students do not enroll until after Labor Day, so we could see an even higher enrollment issue after next week.” Dr. Kohel explained that the district realized enrollment was growing at a faster pace than expected, which meant they could not delay looking at options for new schools.

She explained that the district had two options. They could go back out to seek funding for a new Middle School, but they would have to purchase land as they would need to build a 1,500 student school. The land where the old building sits is not sufficient for a school that size. The second option was to build a new high school. In addition, Kohel stated that if they built a new Middle School, they would be returning to the public the following year to build a new elementary school.

“We were approached by the owners of Sunnybrae, directly across the street from the high school,” Dr. Kohel said. “There are 90 acres on that property. By building a 1,300 student high school there, we would not need to spend money on a new football field. We have a beautiful stadium and a beautiful field hockey field as well. The land is contiguous to the current high school and provides us with the capacity to grow. We would also be able to include some STEM programs that would keep our students here in Milford, rather than going to the tech high schools. I have heard that the focal point of communities is the high school, and although I don’t know if that is true, I would like to think that our community agrees with that assessment. Dr. Kohel said that by building the new high school, the district could move grades five and six into the Miflord Central Academy and move grades seven and eight into the current high school. This would relieve overcrowding in the elementary schools and allow for growth at the Middle School level.

Mr. Schelhouse, President of the Milford School Board, explained that it was urgent that the district pass a referendum this school year. “Even if the referendum passes this year, it will be three years before the school is built,” Mr. Schelhouse explained. “The last high school in Milford was built in the 1920s and that is the old Middle School building. What is now the high school was built in 1963 as a junior high school.”

Councilman Christopher Mergner told Dr. Kohel and Mr. Schelhouse to continue to communicate with parents, community members and the public to get the word out about the need for the new school.

Councilman Gleysteen had a few questions regarding the Milford School District budget. “I have heard rumors that the district had a $10 million surplus ten years ago,” Councilman Dirk Gleysteen said. “That surplus is gone now, or will be gone as of next year. Can you explain what happened to it?”. Kohel explained that it was not true that the district had a $10 million surplus and that, at one time, it was only $6.8 million four years ago. In 2011, the state cut the education budget by $58 million and that Milford alone suffered a loss of $3.5 million.

“The state stopped funding reading and math specialists, after-school programs, funding for school disciplinarians and some of our tax relief refunds,” Dr. Kohel explained. “We made drastic cuts back in 2011, but each year the cuts have gotten bigger. The first year we dipped into our surplus for $1.3 million, and this year we used $1.8 million of our surplus, even after cutting two secretaries, a custodian and an administrative position.”

Councilman Skip Pikus asked what the cost would be to rehabilitate the old Middle School, and Dr. Kohel said the estimate for rehabilitation of the school was $34 million, while demolition costs were $1.8 million. Most of the cost of demolition was due to asbestos. Councilman Pikus then asked what the district would do with the property if the referendum passed. “Our first obligation is to offer it to state agencies,” Dr. Kohel explained. “When we began the process, we contacted the state, but no agencies were interested. We would next offer it to the city who may be interested in the property as the public does use the walking track and ball fields located there. We would have to do something. The building cost us $120,000 to maintain this year, even though it was empty.”

Mayor Bryan Shupe said that he applauded the district for trying to find a solution to the overcrowding issue and that he felt a new high school was a good option for the needs of the district.“I agree with the assessment that the high school is a focal point in any community,” Mayor Shupe explained.

After the referendum discussion, council members discussed the district’s request last year for three School Resource Officers. The district initially requested three additional officers and provided $300,000 to the city to cover the costs of the officer’s training, uniforms and salary. The district has since reduced the number of officers to two additional and were requesting reimbursement of $100,000 less the cost of training. Council voted unanimously to refund $90,641.36 to the district for the reduction in resource officers needed.