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Renovations Too Slow At Columbus Schools For Students And Parents Alike

Even after a $340,000 update to its cupola in 2018, West High School still doesn't have central air conditioning.
Debbie Holmes
West High School just dedicated its new cupola, which cost $340,000. But the school still does not have central air conditioning.

Columbus parents and students at West High School are concerned conditions inside the nearly 90-year old building will continue to decline. Ceiling tiles and plaster fall sporadically, and the building either gets too hot or too cold, depending on the weather.

“One day, my daughter was sitting there and the seat beside her, the ceiling started to fall in beside her,” says parent Nikki Smith. “It’s very hard for them to pay attention, if they’re worried about the ceiling falling in on them.”

West High is one of 64 Columbus City School buildings still in need of renovations. The school district’s Operation Fix-It has paid for some—with funding coming from an operating levy/bond package that voters passed in 2016.

Since 2004, the school district has renovated or replaced 46 buildings. Some of the money to do that came from the sale of district buildings, which has generated $65 million.

“We certainly understand the conditions in the building, so we’ve been working kind of two-fold,” says Alex Trevino, director of capital improvements for Columbus City Schools. “Our maintenance team has the ability to complete some of that work themselves. So I know there have been some concerns over plaster repair inside the building, as well as some roof leaks that we’ve been working on getting addressed.” 

Temperatures inside the building can get so extreme that classmates sometimes ask to go home. Many buildings do not have air conditioning, and in September, Columbus City Schools had to send kids home early multiple days in a row due to heat.

West High School senior Trinity Rogan says she can concentrate, but other students cannot focus so they leave the building.

“It’s a nice clean school, but it’s falling apart,” Rogan says. “It’s just old.”

The building on Powell Avenue opened in 1929, designed by Ohio-born architect Howard Dwight Smith, who also created Ohio Stadium.

“It was old then, but just a beautiful, stately building,” says Dave Dobos, president of the West High School Alumni Association, who graduated in 1973. 

Credit Debbie Holmes / WOSU
West High School

This month, the school dedicated its new cupola, which cost $340,000.

“The cupola, which is the structure at the top, the pinnacle if you will of the school, that became so degraded, that it had to be taken down," Dobos says. "The entire base needed to be reinforced."

The cupola, while mostly an aesthetic element, also has an important function.

“In this case, it actually does serve as the ventilation shaft for the auditorium, believe it or not,” Trevino says. “It was a pretty interesting exercise we went through as we were working to pull that cupola down, to actually realize that there is actually a grill underneath the opening of it that provides part of the ventilation system for the auditorium.”

Trevino says more improvements are set for this summer, like a new HVAC system.

“It is still on a steam system, so if you go into the West High School, you’ll still see those old cast-iron radiators that are operating off of steam,” Trevino says. “They’re a very difficult system to maintain at this point. Very difficult, if not impossible to get repair parts for, and so largely that system is going to be replaced.”

Due to dwindling funds, however, workers will not install central air conditioning. 

“Certainly it’s the plan with time. Right now, we don’t have a bond issue in place at all to continue any of that work,” Trevino says. “But, certainly we hope to pick up that work as soon as we’re able to secure funding to be able to continue that building program.”

To many, that's not good enough.

“Of course, I’m frustrated,” Dobos says. “We’ve seen the new construction occur over the last 15 to 20 years at South High School, at East High School, at Linden McKinley.”

Richelle Conkel, the mother of two West High students, says if funding doesn’t come soon, she may transfer her kids to another high school.

“Do they talk about the conditions of the building? My daughter does a lot,” Conkel says. “A lot of the classrooms are too cold in the wintertime, too hot in the summertime.”

The end is nowhere in sight, though. Trevino estimates it might take another 15 years to finish all of the buildings. By that time, some of those schools may even close.

A task force set up by the school board will examine new school closings for the 2019-20 school year. West High could be on the list.