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  • Funds to move schools to come from 3 sources

    Saturday, May 20, 2000

    Tom Sheehan
    Dispatch Staff Reporter

    MARION, Ohio -- Freshmen Alex Masters and Mikkele Posey attend classes yards away from a fenced-off toxic dump.

    But if a $24.3 million plan announced yesterday at River Valley High School is carried out, their class will be the last to graduate from the building.

    Officials said they hope to string together $15 million in federal funds, $4.7 million in state funds and part of a local bond issue to pay for relocation of the high school and adjacent middle school.

    The two schools are atop a former military depot where chemical waste was dumped for years.

    The Army Corps of Engineers, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and other state and federal agencies have been investigating contamination at the site since high rates of leukemia were discovered among River Valley graduates three years ago.

    Several acres near the schools have been fenced off because of contamination, although studies conducted by the corps indicate that health risks are minimal.

    Masters said that he and other students don't think a lot about possible health risks, but that having new schools would be nice.

    "It will be cheaper than if they did a cleanup,'' he said.

    Superintendent Tom Shade yesterday praised the efforts of school, state and federal officials to reach an agreement in principle to relocate the schools.

    Shade said officials with the 1,800-student district east of Marion are looking at a couple of potential sites, but he would not elaborate.

    "The best solution is the relocation of the high school and middle school,'' he said. "It is the right thing to do. There are still details to be worked out.''

    Three things must happen for the plan to work:

  • Congress must approve legislation giving the corps the authority to consider school relocation as a cleanup option. Such legislation was approved by the House on Thursday. A similar measure is pending in the Senate.

  • The Ohio School Facilities Commission, through its Extreme Environmental Contamination Program, would have to recommend that the state Controlling Board approve the state's $4.7 million share of the relocation costs.

  • The school board and voters in the district would have to approve the bond issue. The school board would have to vote by Aug. 23 to place it on the November ballot.

    The $19.6 million bond issue also would include money to replace the district's three aging, crowded elementary schools with two new ones. Voters in March rejected a bond issue for the elementary schools.

    Shade said he thinks that the federal and state funds will be approved this summer.

    If they and the bond issue are approved, he said, the new schools could open by August 2003.

    Kevin Jasper, chief investigator for the corps, released a letter sent Thursday from Louis Caldera, secretary of the Army, to U.S. Sen. George V. Voinovich, R-Ohio, pledging to use $15 million in federal funds from the Formerly Used Defense Site Program to help with the relocation.

    Once those funds were authorized, the Army would enter into a "memorandum of understanding'' with the school district to seal the arrangement.

    Until then, the 500 students in the high school and the 300 in the middle school will stay put. For safety reasons, the corps would not begin cleaning up the 72-acre school site until after the schools close.

    Jasper said the site would be cleaned up to industrial standards, rather than to residential standards.

    An industrial-standards cleanup is estimated to cost $5 million-$10 million, while a stricter residential- standards cleanup could run as high as $32 million.

    Ohio EPA Director Chris Jones yesterday told about two dozen parents and others gathered in a freshman English classroom at the high school that Voinovich, U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, and Gov. Bob Taft were instrumental in putting together the relocation plan.

    "This consensus is the result of several months of negotiation (and) a desire to do what is best for the students and the community,'' Jones said.

    Don Millard, a River Valley graduate and a member of Concerned River Valley Families, and his wife, Robin, attended the news conference.

    "We are, as a whole, pretty thrilled that they are moving in a positive direction in terms of moving the campus,'' Mr. Millard said.

    However, much remains to be done, he said.

    The entire 640-acre former military site needs to be investigated fully, said Mr. Millard, whose daughter, Stephanie Partee, is a River Valley graduate who developed breast cancer.

    Activist Mike Griffith and his wife, Jodi, graduated from River Valley in 1974. Their son attended the high school until they took him out last year.

    "I think this is a strong move forward,'' Mr. Griffith said.


    Copyright 2000, The Columbus Dispatch