Center in a Storm

As Cincinnati Public Schools looks to expand, the future of the Clifton Cultural Arts Center hangs in the balance

click to enlarge Cincinnati Public Schools might need to use the old Clifton School Building again.
Cincinnati Public Schools might need to use the old Clifton School Building again.

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months-long battle between the Clifton Cultural Arts Center and Cincinnati Public Schools began with an unexpected voicemail this winter.

CCAC Executive Director Leslie Mooney had been working with CPS to potentially lease space in the CCAC’s building for the Fairview-Clifton German Language School, the highly-ranked magnet school located directly across the street on Clifton Avenue.

According to Mooney, a voicemail left with the CCAC’s lawyers on Feb. 12 offered an entirely different possibility: CPS taking back the Clifton School Building, which the CCAC has leased for the past eight years.

“We were in negotiations in terms of them renting space within the building for varied expansion,” says Mooney, “and then I believe it was mid-February when they let us know they would not be renting space and they would likely be issuing us a letter of termination.”

The Clifton Cultural Arts Center is a community center featuring art classes, exhibits and programs for kids and adults. CPS had cut the CCAC a deal to rent out the more-than-a-century-old Clifton School Building after it closed Clifton’s last neighborhood school there in 2005.

But the school district also included a clause in the lease that would allow it to take back the building if it needed it for educational purposes — as long as it gave the CCAC 365 days’ notice and paid it back for maintenance costs based on a sliding scale.

Therein lies the need for the situation to be resolved quickly, from CPS’s standpoint, if it intends to use the building as a public school again as soon as the 2017-18 academic year.

During the months following that February phone call, tensions have risen between CPS, the CCAC and many in the Clifton community over the arts center’s future. CPS says it might need to use the building as a neighborhood school for Clifton and the nearby neighborhoods of Clifton Heights, University Heights, Fairview and Spring Grove Village.

CPS Superintendent Mary Ronan says the situation stems from pressures from an increase in enrollment and a shortfall of funding available to accommodate it.

“Now all of a sudden when we have an uptick in enrollment, it’s incredibly expensive,” Ronan says. “We don’t have the $14 million to build a new school, but we have a building that we did lease.”

Ronan says for the 2015-2016 school year, enrollment was at 34,000 — which was higher than the state’s projected number of 28,000 — with an expected increase of 1,000 students for next year.

But Mooney says CPS has failed to articulate these needs directly to CCAC or the Clifton community.

“We really feel whole-heartedly like nothing is going to be resolved until we can get around the table and just have a conversation,” Mooney says, “without it going through attorneys or going through the media, just coming directly to us.”

The CCAC’s 30-year lease with CPS began in 2008, the same year that CPS moved the Fairview-Clifton German Language School into its new building across the street.

With no neighborhood school in Clifton, many local parents turned to Fairview, says CPS spokeswoman Janet Walsh.

But last September the Board of Education voted to suspend the district’s first-come, first-serve policy for magnet school enrollment and replaced it with a randomized lottery system.

Clifton residents had previously taken it for granted that they could camp out at the beginning of the school year to get a spot at Fairview, says Nicholas Hollan, the chair of neighborhood group Clifton Town Meeting’s education committee.

Hollan says Clifton residents were initially supportive of a new neighborhood school or a merged school with Fairview. But that was before it became clear that these options might come at the expense of the CCAC.

Clifton Town Meeting, which started working with the CCAC earlier this year, officially threw its support behind saving the arts center during an April 4 board meeting, when its members voted in support of CPS working with it and the CCAC to find a long-term solution that didn’t involve giving up the building.

Two days later, Cincinnati City Council chimed in, passing a resolution at its April 6 meeting requesting that CPS and CCAC negotiate a way to share the space.

“CPS, take an extra lap, if you will, at working with the community in this case,”  Mayor John Cranley said at that meeting.

Meanwhile, Clifton residents have been rallying in support of the CCAC. More than 50 people showed up wearing red shirts to show their support for the CCAC at CPS’s April 25 Board of Education meeting.

Clifton resident Chelsea Borgman was one of the nearly two dozen people who testified in front of the board in support of the CCAC.

“Clifton Cultural Arts Center provides an invaluable experience to the fine arts and performing arts for our community,” Borgman said.

Borgman created a change.org petition calling on CPS to find a way to share the space with the CCAC. That petition has gathered more than 1,100 signatures.

But an open letter from CPS distributed to area families before the meeting reignited the tensions between the CCAC’s supporters and CPS.

The letter stated that the district was currently surveying families about their interest in building a neighborhood school. CPS claimed that in exchange for taking back the old Clifton School Building, it had offered to give the CCAC ownership of the Carriage House in Clifton, negotiate other rental space and allow the organization to be the “lead agency” in partnering with CPS for students’ arts education.

The Carriage House sits behind the Fairview School. The arts organization has been engaged in efforts to raise the estimated $550,000 needed to renovate that building. When completed, those renovations would yield about 4,000 square feet of studio and other space. The CCAC’s current building provides more than 50,000 square feet.

Mooney of the CCAC told the board that the school district had never formally offered any of the options listed in the letter to the CCAC.

CPS Superintendent Ronan said after the meeting that the district’s decision to break the lease largely hinged on the public’s interest in building a new neighborhood school. The district is still waiting on 600 surveys it sent out to Clifton residents to come back in mid-May. But she also said the board was anxious to figure out whether to break the lease so it could issue the CCAC the required 365-day termination notice in order to have the school ready in time for the 2017-18 school year.

“If we take the building back,” she said, “we will let them use it on weekends, evenings and so they can continue all those kinds of programming.”

Though the CCAC leases the building from CPS for $1 a year, there are other significant costs — the CCAC says it has raised and spent more than $2.5 million to renovate the building and pays about $95,000 a year the its operational costs. CPS will have to pay back between $1 and $2 million if it decides to terminate the lease.

The groups recently settled on a time to sit down: CPS will host a public meeting with CCAC, Clifton Town Meeting and representatives of the Fairview-Clifton German Language School at its Burnet Avenue headquarters for an hour on May 12. ©

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