Lakota Schools take look at space issues as buildings age, enrollment increases

Two new high schools being considered with current buildings becoming middle schools.

Butler County’s largest school system is getting too big and some of its school buildings too old, say leaders of Lakota Schools.

And what Lakota Local Schools officials should do about those problems will be the focus of a key school board meeting Monday evening that has seen years of lead-up discussions — and pandemic delays — to the first major decisions in series of choices to be made by the school board in 2023 and beyond.

The Lakota Board of Education will choose from two of an original four proposed master facilities plans, which will in 2023 include some reconfiguration of grade levels currently housed in some of the districts’ 24 schools.

And the board’s vote may later have an impact on the pocketbooks of Lakota community residents and businesses as district officials have had preliminary discussions about seeking a tax bond issue in 2024 or in later years to build some new schools and renovate some others based on the whatever facilities plans they approve Monday.

Though Monday’s vote is not the final decision on what exactly which schools will be replaced or grades changed, it is a major step in a years-long process that eventually will have ramifications for decades of future Lakota schools families, their children and hundreds of school employees.

In their current state, the two proposed plans may see the replacement of 10 school buildings, including in one plan the possibility of converting Lakota East and Lakota West high schools into middle schools and the building of two new high schools.

But neither the 10 schools nor the school grade levels reconfiguration have been determined yet, said Lakota officials, as more studies of facilities, projected enrollment growth and other variables are still being researched.

A master facilities plan, which is standard for almost all Ohio public school systems in managing the use and expansion of school buildings into the future, has not been done for nearly two decades and is overdue, says the leader of Lakota’s governing board.

“It’s time,” Board of Education President Lynda O’Connor told the Journal-News. “While the Masters Facility Plan was updated in 2008, a complete plan hasn’t been built out since the early 2000s.”

“Our operations department does a great job keeping our buildings up and running, but some of our buildings are showing significant signs of aging and are becoming increasingly more expensive to maintain,” said O’Connor.

The onset in March 2020 of the COVID-19 pandemic scuttled district plans and momentum for developing a new facilities plan that year largely delayed the board from making significant progress until earlier this year.

ExploreLakota resumes plans that may lead to new school buildings, renovations

Lakota Schools Superintendent Matt Miller agreed, saying: “After starting and stopping the work on our master facilities plan because of the pandemic, I’m excited that the board will vote on a final option.”

“Once the plan is selected, the (district facilities) committee can get to work in order to determine how our facilities can support our students’ education in the best way possible,” said Miller.

“We will be engaging our staff, families, students and community as the details are worked out. Our schools belong to our community, and we want to work together to build the plan that will carry Lakota into the future.”

Lakota is Butler County’s most populous district with 17,200 students, the largest suburban district in southwest Ohio and the 8th largest of all of Ohio’s 613 public school systems.

The district’s taxpayer-funded construction and maintenance of its two dozen schools — and the provision of adequate classroom spaces and modernized facilities updated to the 21st Century standards — are ultimately the responsibility of Lakota’s board in serving the Lakota communities in West Chester and Liberty townships, said O’Connor.

“The Lakota school district’s facilities are community assets for which the board of Education bears ultimate responsibility on behalf of our community.”

Fellow school board member Kelley Casper echoed O’Connor’s stance adding to further delay taking action will eventually cost Lakota and its taxpayers more money.

“In my opinion the Master Facilities Plan is necessary so that we can address those buildings in a fiscally responsible manner,” said Casper.

For years, some of Lakota’s oldest schools, such as the Lakota West Freshman School in West Chester Twp. — which is largely the same building that opened in the early 1960s to house the old Lakota High School — have been patched up and remodeled rather than replaced.

And a building’s age is not always indicative of problems.

Cherokee Elementary’s growing enrollment and lack of classroom space has forced the school to use module or portable classrooms on its grounds, a stop-gap measure for overcrowding that education experts agree is less than ideal for students.

“In some cases putting band aids on some of these buildings will cost the district a lot more money in the long run rather than decommissioning a building and building a new one,” said Casper.

“Education is always changing and our student population continues to grow,” said Casper.

School board picking one of two proposed plans

Deciding on a new plan involving the construction of some new schools is the first of a series of steps toward seeking more school tax money from residents.

No time frame, however, has been chosen by district officials for putting a tax bond issue on the ballot beyond preliminary estimates of 2024 or later, nor has the size of the tax bond’s millage been determined.

And Monday’s vote also moves Lakota closer toward pursuing state funds through the Ohio School Facilities Commission (OSFC), which depending on the size of the local bond issue – and its passage by voters – may pay for hundreds of millions of dollars of any new school construction costs.

Lakota officials have been building its case with the public for some new schools and extensive renovations of others in recent years and earlier this year included a series of community meetings and tours for the public to see firsthand the aging and inadequate learning spaces within its older buildings.

ExploreLakota Schools will present facilities needs to public, provide tours

Earlier this week, the school board’s facilities committee met in preparation for Monday’s key vote by the full board and began to focus on two plans narrowed down from an original four, which have been available for public viewing for nearly a year on Lakota’s website.

One option, with an estimated cost of $491 million, would include closing 10 schools and building six new schools including a new, standalone preschool building. That plan would also call for the construction of a building for specialty high school classes.

The other option, estimated to cost $502 million, would also include building a standalone preschool, the closing of 10 school buildings while building three new schools, including two new high schools along with the conversion of Lakota East and Lakota West high schools into middle schools.

Both plans, said officials, would also include millions of dollars in operational savings.

O’Connor and Casper said this first official step via a board vote Monday is a welcomed one to move into a more detailed planning process in 2023.

“This has been a long time in the making … we are looking forward to moving forward with a decision … so that we can really get into the hard planning that needs to happen,” O’Connor told the facilities committee.

Meeting details

The Lakota Board of Education conducts its next meeting at 6:30 p.m. Monday at Lakota Plains Junior School, 5500 Princeton Road in Liberty Twp.

Complete coverage

Check after the meeting for updates.

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