The Newbury and West Geauga boards of education are back on track for determining the future of Newbury’s property after two joint virtual meetings with residents and township trustees last week. A survey is now open for community input as Newbury prepares to become part of the West Geauga district on July 1

After needing to reschedule the joint “community listening session” due to technical difficulties, the boards of education met on May 28 to begin brainstorming options with residents and May 29 for a breakout session with the Newbury Township Board of Trustees. Both meetings were facilitated by Dione DeMitro of Cleveland-based Burges and Burges Strategists.

The districts opened up the survey at the rescheduled listening session, which, by the breakout session the following night, revealed that a larger percentage of participants would like to see most of the property go to Newbury Township. This included ideas like community or recreational centers, township office space or continuing the Geauga County Public Library’s use of the former middle school, Ms. DeMitro said.

“While the ultimate decision of what to do with these facilities rests with the West Geauga Board of Education following the territory transfer that will occur on July 1, we do want to hear from the members of our community,” Newbury Local School District board President Maggie Zock said during the May 28 meeting.

What’s in store

Mrs. Zock and board President Bill Beers of West Geauga Local Schools presented the conditions of the current buildings and property as well as the associated costs during the listening session to help the community in their brainstorming for the survey. They presented the same information for the following breakout session to the Newbury Township trustees.

The property is made up of 40 acres that can be divided into seven parcels, Mrs. Zock said, with three main structures: the main K-12 school building, the former middle school and auditorium and the bus garage.

She outlined that repairs are needed for the front end of the main building’s windows and facade as well as the bus garage parking lot. She added that “all three facilities are presumed to contain asbestos due to the age in which they were built,” with the main building’s original structure dating back to 1928 and the middle school and auditorium dating back to 1972.

The district’s sewer system, she said, which is currently maintained by the Geauga County Department of Water Resources, “does have the capacity to sustain growth.”

She added that the middle school, which is currently utilized by the Geauga County Public Library, has central air, a gymnasium or all-purpose room and an open layout due to having removable partition walls.

“Looking beyond the three facilities, we have our athletic fields, which include new bleachers that were installed in 2018,” she said. “During that time, a new pole barn was built for storage, and there are two other buildings for concessions, restrooms and storage along with the pavilion.”

Dr. Beers presented the costs of the property and the demolition or mothballing of the facilities, noting that demolishing all structures could cost more than the property is worth without the buildings.

“We need your insight to try to identify a scenario that results in the most attractive and financially responsible solution,” he said to the listening session attendees.

According to a January assessment of the property by Charles P. Braman and Co., Inc., a real estate appraisal firm, the property without the buildings is worth about $700,000. Demolition costs of the three main structures could reach more than $1 million, according to GPD Group, an architectural firm. Dr. Beers said mothballing the facilities could cost almost $223,000 per year due to required maintenance and repairs, insurance and personnel.

“With annual expenses exceeding 200,000, we do not want to leave the property sitting too long. Additionally, the longer it sits empty, the more likely it is to become an eyesore – definitely something we want to avoid,” he said. “The impact of the property disposition is huge. We realize that,” he added. “It’s at the center of the Newbury community, and it will affect the whole unified school district.”

Looking at preliminary results

During last Friday’s breakout session, Ms. DeMitro detailed preliminary results to the two school boards in a tri-meeting with the Newbury trustees, looking at the bus garage, front of the main building, rear of the main building, the former middle school and the athletic fields. The survey also addressed what concerns participants had; specifically what they did not want to see happen to the property.

Ms. DeMitro explained, however, that the results were still “very preliminary” and that just 73 participants had filled out the survey as of May 29. The survey will remain open until the end of the day June 2, and the official results will be discussed more in depth during another joint community listening session on June 3.

The bus garage received mostly even responses in terms of who should retain the facilities when Newbury transfers to West Geauga schools after June 30, but the township’s retention of the facilities received the highest percentage at 31 percent with 25 percent suggesting demolition and 23 percent suggesting West Geauga retain the garage, according to the preliminary results.

Ms. DeMitro said the survey so far revealed that demolition of the front of the main building received the highest percentage at 29 percent of participants. For the rear of the main building, 61 percent of participants suggested the township’s retention. And for the former middle school, 82 percent of residents supported the township’s retention.

The athletic fields garnered the most support toward township retention with 91 percent of participants having suggested this.

“When it came to the athletic fields, certainly people had a strong belief that the township should retain the athletic fields for recreational support and for the use of community,” Ms. DeMitro said.

She said the survey also asked participants what they did not want to see happen to the property or facilities as a whole.

Forty-four percent of people did not want the property used for “private endeavors,” 18 percent did not want the entire property demolished, 15 percent did not want the site to become an eyesore, 10 percent did not want the township to retain the property if it is not financially feasible and 4 percent did not want the property to remain exclusively with West Geauga schools.

Township Trustee Bill Skomrock said he would be interested to see how the numbers change by the next listening session on June 3, noting he was surprised to see such high interest in the township’s retention of the facilities despite the economic impact of the COVID-19 health crisis.

“I guess the community right now, they’d have to be willing to giddy-up to that challenge. We need to do a lot of research on our end with planning,” he said. “This is kind of enlightening. A little eye-opening.”

West Geauga board Vice President Chet Ramey said that community members have expressed in communications with the school board that they are most concerned about maintaining public access to the athletic fields.

“I'm guessing that most of them view the township as the most appropriate vehicle for that,” he said. “I just don't know if they understand the [financial] consequences of making that decision, like Bill (Skomrock) said.”

“It will take money to make this happen, absolutely,” Newbury school board member Kimya Matthews said. “But I want to encourage both the township and (school) board members to not think of things as absolute or black and white or all or nothing right now.” She noted that a recreational organization, the name of which she did not disclose, has expressed interest in working with the township to help maintain the athletic fields, possibly paying a form of rent for the space.

“When July 1 comes around, we’re not, as Newbury, a board anymore, but that doesn’t make us not residents and not here to help continue the development of conversations with you,” she added. “You have plenty of people willing to work together to find a shared use of community or private or governmental use that can be a symbiotic relationship so the township isn’t taking it all on their own.”

More questions than answers

While the Newbury Township Trustees have officially expressed interest in working with the joint school districts Friday night, they agreed that they still need more information and insight on other potential stakeholders before determining the feasibility of taking ownership of any of the school property or facilities.

Mr. Skomrock said the panelists need to look at “all the options,” whether that be private, governmental or a combination of possibilities. “There are just so many things to look to explore before anybody can make a decision – an educated decision,” he said. “We all work on emotion.”

Trustee Glen Quiqley agreed, stating that while this is the time to “dream,” there are a lot of questions that will need to be answered.

“We are certainly interested in exploring all the possibilities; this is the time to dream big and explore what the future could be,” Mr. Quigley said, but later asked a list of questions that would need answers before moving forward.

“What will the formalization of this process look like? What would be our financial obligations from the start? What sort of timetable would we be expected to make decisions under? What other people have you folks been in contact with that we could then reach out to explore possible leasing arrangements or rentals or whatever?” he asked. Knowing the financial obligations and timeframe would be most important, he added.

“So we’re interested,” he said. “What becomes of that?”

Dr. Beers said the district does not want to maintain the facilities for a “long period of time” because of the costs to maintain them. Speaking only for himself, he said he believed even one year to be “pushing it” before coming to a decision for the facilities.

He said the township and school boards are both in situations where more than ever they can’t afford to waste money due to the financial impacts of COVID-19, from loss of revenue for the township, to cuts in state funding for the schools.

“We want to get this to some kind of conclusion [as] something that is financially responsible for everybody as soon as possible,” Dr. Beers said. “We’re dealing with a Jigsaw puzzle,” he added. “I'm hoping we can put the pieces together in such a way that it is truly a win situation for absolutely everybody involved.”

Sam Cottrill started reporting for the Times in February 2019 and covers Auburn, Bainbridge, Bentleyville and Chagrin, Kenston, Solon and West Geauga schools. She graduated from Kent State University in 2018 with a bachelor's degree in journalism.

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