Two decades ago residents in the booming Lakota school system were seeing double and cheering about it.
The Sept. 15, 1997, opening day of school in Lakota was and still is unique among the history of dozens of school districts in Southwest Ohio.
That first day of school saw two, recently constructed and completely identical high schools — Lakota West and Lakota East — starting classes.
Now in the 20th anniversary year of Lakota’s unusual twin high schools, those involved in the historical move vividly recall the controversy and conflicts leading up to the unheard of decision to build duplicate schools that would forever split the school system’s West Chester and Liberty townships into two high school loyalties.
And key decisions made in the 1990s — many of them initially splitting residents into contentious camps — still reverberate and impact school families today.
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“It was never been done before in this area,” said Sandy Wheatley, then-president of the Lakota Board of Education, of the identical high school idea.
And it was a plan borne of desperation, recalls Wheatley and other former Lakota officials.
In the early 1990s the once rural community was deluged by the first of soon-to-be-many waves of young families with children moving into its rapidly expanding suburban subdivisions. The enrollment jumps were historic — often averaging more than 500 new students per year — equivalent to an entire new school’s total enrollment annually.
The Lakota Superintendent at the time — Tom Hayden — looks back and says, “it was at the point of overcrowding that we had to do something.”
Initially school officials expanded the original Lakota High School — now Lakota West Freshman School — on Tylersville Road but that provided only temporary breathing room and filled quickly.
In 1992 school officials first proposed building a single, larger high school but in the fall of 1993 voters widely rejected the plan and its tax hike.
Residents in the two townships didn’t want their community split into student populations where one group was forced to attend the old, outdated Lakota High School — built in the early 1960s — while others enjoyed a new, expansive high school and modern classrooms.
And a giant, single mega-high school building — with a large enrollment projected to get even bigger in the coming years — would severely limit students’ opportunities to participate in sports and other extra-curricular activities and was cost-prohibitive.
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AT A GLANCE
Lakota Schools, which is the largest suburban district in Southwest Ohio and the eighth largest in Ohio, built two new, identical high schools in 1997 — a feat unique regionally.
- The two schools cost $53 million, which voters approved through a tax hike in 1994.
- Lakota West stands on a 59-acre site at 8940 Union Centre Blvd.
- Lakota East is on 68.5 acres at 6840 Lakota Lane.
- Both buildings had an original square footage of 247,500 square feet when they were built in 1997. In 2002 both buildings were expanded by 10,388 square feet.
- In 2002, both campuses also had field houses constructed near their athletic stadiums.
- The last additions were in 2008 for both buildings and was 56,504 sq. ft.
- There are currently 87 classrooms in each school and Lakota West enrolls 1,882 students and Lakota East 2,096.
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In the aftermath of the new high school tax hike Hayden said school officials reach out to school parents through dozens of community input meetings, seeking guidance and residents responded.
“The community wasn’t satisfied with the one new high school approach. They told us there would always be comparisons between the old and the new high school and they said some kids will never be treated fairly,” says Hayden.
The public told Lakota officials “if Lakota is going to be a multi-high school district then there needs to be equity. And if we built two identical schools there are inherent cost savings,” he says.
In early 1994 Lakota officials came back to voters with a new plan: Approve a $53 million bond tax hike and we will build two, identical high schools — one in West Chester Twp. and the other in Liberty Twp. — and convert the old high school into a district-wide freshmen school.
It barely passed by a 51 percent to 49 percent vote margin.
But splitting the old and beloved high school into two was still a decision fraught with emotion for the close-knit community. To lessen the friction, school officials made sure each high school had the same design, resources and equipment.
Moreover, officials purposely avoided drawing student attendance zones exactly matching the boundaries of each township, which they feared would lead to sharp and permanent geographical and loyalty divisions.
“There was an intentionality in drawing the boundary lines pulling in kids from both townships into both high schools,” said Wheatley.
So even two decades later, substantial portions of each high school’s students come from outside the school’s home township.
Two new high schools meant a beloved winged symbol would have to be split into two.
School officials decided over some student protests the two schools would have new mascots, which led to one of the more unusual arrangements in local high school lore.
Rather than toss out school history and loyalty for the nearly four decades, the old Lakota High School “Thunderbird” mascot was split into the “Firebirds” of Lakota West High School and “Thunderhawks” of Lakota East.
But there was also a compass point dispute.
Originally the two high schools were going to be Lakota South — West Chester — and Lakota North — in Liberty Twp., which is immediately north of West Chester Twp. The two schools — both standing near a five-mile stretch of the north-south Interstate 75 in Butler County — are neither west nor east of one another.
Students and families at the old Lakota High School so disliked the idea of South and North Lakota high schools that they circulated a petition, gathered thousands of signatures and forced school officials to go with the current, though directionaly inaccurate, “West” and “East” monikers.
The opening ceremonies for each high school were held on the Sunday, Sept. 14, 1997 the day before classes began Monday morning. Again, in the spirit of fairness and equality, the Sunday ceremony times were staggered that afternoon so the public, local dignitaries, politicians and business leaders could easily attend both.
Those egalitarian efforts continue to today.
After the split, Lakota district officials went to great lengths to publicly demonstrate an unbiased approach toward the two high schools, especially during the intense rivalry football and basketball games.
The annual Lakota West and East football game, which in the past has drawn crowds of 10,000, is the largest single prep sports event in Butler County.
Former Lakota Superintendent Kathleen Klink, who led the district from 1994 to 2005, started a tradition that subsequent superintendents still follow by sitting with Lakota West supporters for half the game and then moving across the field — or basketball court — to sit with Lakota East fans for the second half.
Former Lakota District Athletic Director Stu Eversole, who is retired from Lakota but works as Associate Commissioner for the Great Miami Conference sports league, was equally calculating.
“I’d spend the whole game standing in the end zone,” recalls Eversole with a chuckle. “And during the basketball games I’d stand at the end court on the deck above the court.”
Klink nurtured the new high schools through the growing pains of their initial years. Looking back Klink says tying in local parents and residents was key to the split not dividing the community.
“We knew that we had to have these open communications or we wouldn’t get where we wanted to be,” says Klink.
What eventually sold the community though, was the expanded opportunities for students that comes with two high schools rather than one giant one.
“That was very important for us to be able to open this up to as many students as we could possibly serve in whatever activities they wanted to be in,” she says.
Wheatley agreed, saying “as you look back in hindsight, it is a success story.”