Three candidates are vying for two open seats on the Gahanna-Jefferson Public Schools Board of Education in the Nov. 5 election.
Incumbents Daphne Moehring of Lily Pond Court and Beryl Brown Piccolantonio of Riva Ridge Boulevard are being challenged by Jon Handler of Arcaro Drive.
ThisWeek Rocky Fork Enterprise posed three questions to each candidate regarding school district issues, asking that responses be limited to 200 words.
What do you feel is the most important issue within the G-J schools and how do you propose addressing it?
Brown Piccolantonio: Our buildings are inadequate for our growing student population and are aging. After election in 2015, we led the revival of a stalled master facility planning process. With our community's support, we passed a levy to implement phase one. We commissioned a robust enrollment study and will use that data, along with community input, to develop a long-term flexible plan. Our students have increasingly complex needs and schools cannot solely provide academic education. We have added a mental health specialist in each elementary building, increased access to extra-curricular activities and focused staff professional development on student mental health and equity. We must continue to make sure our students are prepared to be contributing and successful adults. Not all students have the same needs or will travel the same path after graduation. I have led a board that has worked with our business community to provide internship and job opportunities and encouraged administrators to communicate with students and parents about all available options.
Handler: I believe there are a few issues, however, the most important would be growth. Recently there was a study done via the school district by Cooperative Strategies with a 10-year growth estimate. It clearly shows with the available land parcels and home building companies coming, it will be difficult to sustain the current student population in our buildings. If elected, I would propose we move at a quicker pace to begin construction of the new Lincoln Elementary School so we can free up the available land where it currently stands. This will then allow Phase Two to get on the ballot to begin the process of evaluating the high school and other buildings such as add-ons to the elementary schools and middle schools. Remember the voters passed this levy-bond issue in 2018.
Moehring: I believe that the most important issue is one of physical space to accommodate enrollment growth. This is already being addressed through Phase One of the Master Facilities Plan the board initiated in 2017. Phase Two just began which will address the high school along with Jefferson Township growth. The board's role is to direct the superintendent in executing the process and plan with oversight through financial approvals. The board commissioned a robust enrollment study to provide empirical data to use in the process. The study reviews turnover of existing homes in Gahanna as well as developable land in the township. Our current buildings were designed to educate 7,535 students. Currently our enrollment is 7,783. The recently commissioned enrollment study projects 8,672 students by 2025. My goal is to provide an educational environment that is conducive to optimal learning with class sizes that allow teachers to meet the needs of each student. The physical spaces must be built in a cost-effective manner and have long-term functionality. Maintaining current facilities is part of the process and is supported by the permanent improvement levy approved in 2015 and the bond levy in 2018. We appreciate the support of those levies.
Phase 2 of the Gahanna-Jefferson master facilities plan likely will involve renovating or replacing Lincoln High School. Which is your preference (renovate or replace) and why?
Brown Piccolantonio: My preference is to listen to the community before putting anything on the ballot. As part of Phase One, we promised voters community engagement in Phase Two to come up with a high school solution that is supported by the community. That engagement begins soon and will be informed by the data about our buildings provided by architects during Phase One and also by the data from the robust curriculum study this school board commissioned. We must plan for our high school students today and in the future. Gahanna is at a critical inflection point and the plan must be something our community supports because we must act. In deciding whether to renovate or replace, the community will need to consider the cost and sustainability given the enrollment growth trends.
Handler: My preference would be to renovate the current high school. I think once the current Lincoln Elementary is razed and land is available, a lot of the congestion that is there now will be cleared. Taking into account the taxpayers of Gahanna will be funding this, I think it's imperative to bring them to the table to see which option is most economical and be as transparent as possible to make the best decision. I also think it's extremely important to keep the historical value of the current Lincoln High School building. One of the most unique things about Gahanna are the generations of students who have passed through that building and showing we would want to preserve it as best as possible with the understanding we need upgrades and additional space.
Moehring: Phase Two does address the high school, which is a series of additions to the original structure along with Clark Hall. While I am not in the construction nor real estate professions, I believe that to renovate would prove more costly than a new build. I will wait for the financial analysis to solidify that premise. I view this as an opportunity to evaluate what education environment is most conducive to optimal learning and compare that to options put forth by the community task force in place, known as our Master Facilities Committee. The superintendent will be conducting neighborhood gatherings to gather feedback from our families and residents. I will then analyze each alternative from a cost/benefit perspective, the optimal learning perspective, and longevity perspective.
Would you support a second high school? Explain.
Brown Piccolantonio: The engagement we do will be critical in determining the high school solution. I am eager to hear what community members think after considering all of the information we have gathered. In addition to the factors weighed in deciding whether to renovate or replace, when thinking about the option of a second high school, the community will need to consider: whether voters will financially support operating costs for a second building, which curricular and extra-curricular offerings would be eliminated or be present only in one building since Gahanna does not have the ability to support the depth of curriculum currently offered in Two buildings, how to divide the district, and how to manage the logistics of Two high schools. I look forward to the discussions about Phase Two because I think Gahanna has a unique opportunity to be creative in our high school solution.
Handler: I would not support a second high school. I am more than happy to sit down and listen/discuss the idea however, for Gahanna specifically my personal belief is keeping it just one. I grew up with one high school and I remember the feeling of unity and acting as one team for the community. Gahanna certainly has its challenges, whether it's sports participation, student council, theater or other extra-curricular activities, we have the size and talent to make sure every student can feel part of something.
Moehring: I need to understand the options available and conduct a thorough analysis of each option. There are several ways to address our high school with a second high school being one of them. We have a Master Facilities Committee composed of professionals from a variety of education, architecture and construction backgrounds that I believe will examine any and all options thoroughly. Add to that a study of the incremental operating costs must be completed so that voters understand the cost in totality. From the educational perspective, a similar review must be completed. Class sizes are not an issue at this time because of the number of classes offered is so deep. How will those classes, our program of studies, be altered and is that acceptable to the voters. Athletics would change and how will that affect our students and costs. If student impact is truly better with a second high school and it can be built and supported financially (both capital and operating) by our voters, and, it is needed for the long-term given that birth rates are in a declining path, I will support a second high school. This is not primarily an emotional decision for me.