Cover Story: The Norwood Way

An urban island faces the cost of independence

Aug 1, 2002 at 2:06 pm

When the last of its big industry hightailed out of Norwood, the city might have chosen to meld quietly into the surrounding sea of the city of Cincinnati.

A manufacturing boom that began in 1898 when the Bullock Electrical Co. moved from Cincinnati — to avoid a threatened tax levy — continued for the next 40 years. Factory after factory relocated to what geologists call the Norwood Trough, taking advantage of cheap real estate and plentiful water.

Norwood plants employed tens of thousands in the fabrication of playing cards, washing machines and office furniture. In 1943 the General Motors plants were assembling 300 cars and trucks per day. The 1950 census counted more than 35,000 residents.

When the recessions of the 1970s took their toll, factories scaled back or moved elsewhere. Businesses closed.

Some people followed the work to other cities. Others moved to the constantly expanding suburbs.

By the 2000 census, fewer than 22,000 people lived in Norwood's three square miles.

As the tax base and the population dispersed, annexation to the city of Cincinnati would have been a reasonable choice. But that wouldn't have been the way things are done here.

Norwoodians aren't stiff-necked, exactly. They just like things done on their own terms. People still proudly remember the 1937 Ohio River flood, when the Cincinnati Water Works was forced to shut down. Nearly the entire city went to Norwood's artesian wells to fill buckets and tubs. Refugees from low areas were bivouacked in Norwood City Hall.

Today Norwood, like its smaller sibling, St. Bernard, is an island — an incorporated municipality completely encircled by Cincinnati proper.

The boosterism that residents sometimes display can seem a little old-fashioned, but it reflects a longstanding tradition of self-reliance.

And it has a dead-serious aspect that stems from the knowledge that Norwood is on its own.

The "corporate limit" signs beside streets leading into Norwood demarcate more than a change of road crews. They indicate a kind of sovereignty.

They are also reminders that Norwood doesn't have room to expand. If there is a need for a new building to go up, an old building has to come down.

Margaret Wehmeyer, a life-long resident, still lives in the house her great-grandfather built.

"People of Norwood are different," she says. "Norwood has always been out there by itself. We've always been proud of that."

It's the kind of place where you frequently hear people say, "I've lived here all my life."

A place with two mayors
According to the Ohio State Auditor's office, the budget for the Norwood City School District last year was 25 percent greater than all the money spent to provide city services — administration, fire and police services and garbage collection — combined.

In May, 63 percent of voters approved the renewal of the second of two five-year emergency operating levies.

To say Norwood takes its schools seriously would be an understatement.

Former school board member Edward Casagrande puts it this way: "Norwood has two mayors — Mayor (Joseph) Hochbein and (School Superintendent) Barbara Rider."

Historically, Norwood's working-class pockets have been deep, at least when it comes to classrooms.

When Norwood High School, the district's newest building, was completed in 1972, it came equipped with a planetarium and a television studio.

The older buildings, five elementary schools and a middle school, were all built between 1896 and 1917. Several have additions or annexes that were built between 1949 and 1959 to accommodate the postwar baby boom.

The school buildings have about them an atmosphere of permanence, reinforced by the density of the wire-cut brick and stone and hardwood, wrought with a kind of craftsmanship that is seen no more. They retain the earnestness of a century, give or take a decade, of Norwood's children passing under the carved stone of separate boys' and girls' entrances.

The classrooms have cloakrooms and slate chalkboards. The auditoriums, practically miniature concert halls, don't do double duty as gyms or cafeterias.

But none has central air conditioning. None is completely accessible to handicapped students or teachers. In 2000, almost three decades after the last classroom was built, the Norwood Board of Education agreed the time had come to develop a plan for the future.

Grim news for the schools
The Ohio State Schools Facilities Commission was established in 1997 to provide funding, management oversight and technical assistance to school districts for construction and renovation. Enrolling in the commission's Expedited Local Partnership Plan meant the state would pay for more than a third of the cost of bringing Norwood's school buildings into the 21st century.

Distributed on the basis of need, the state money was expected to be available in 2008. As participants in the expedited plan, the school board had two years to develop a plan and secure funding.

The clock was ticking.

State engineers and architects began inspecting and evaluating the buildings.

"We asked ourselves, 'What do we need to educate kids in 2030?' " Superintendent Rider says. " 'What do we need to keep our schools competitive, both locally and across the country?' "

The answers were, by any standard, grim. The State Schools Facilities Commission released a preliminary report in December 2001. The state found it would cost so much to renovate the five elementary schools and the middle school that demolishing them and erecting new buildings might be necessary in order for Norwood to qualify for state funding.

Born, raised and schooled in Norwood, Sonja Simpson is a self-appointed city watchdog. She expresses many people's outrage.

"They want to tear down our history," she says. "They want to wipe it out and put up buildings that should be in the suburbs."

The high school was the only candidate for renovation alone, at a projected cost of about $9 million. Estimates varied, but the total cost for the Norwood system was upward of $50 million.

By comparison, it cost $1 million to build Norwood Middle School (then the high school) in 1914.

Doing it their way
It wasn't a done deal. Not in Norwood. The school board formed a steering committee of parents, staff and others to develop a master plan that would be acceptable to both residents and the Schools Facilities Commission.

The school district hired an architectural firm and facilitator, DeJong and Associates. It scheduled community meetings in March and April to gather public input. A flyer announcing the meetings bore the message, "In the coming months, the people of Norwood will completely re-design our public schools. Or not."

Or not. The people were invited to consider what the outsiders had to say, and then do it the Norwood way.

The proposal for a master plan that emerged from the meetings calls for razing only two buildings, Allison Street and Williams Avenue elementary schools, which were found to be the most degraded by the Schools Facilities Commission.

The remaining school buildings would undergo substantial renovation, with one closed facility, North Norwood School, returned to service and another, Sharpsburg Elementary School, placed in inactive status.

The question had become, "What do we have to give up to educate kids in 2030?"

The plan is meant to be accomplished during a four-to-six-year period, with all schools staying open for the duration of the implementation phase.

The plan also calls for a commitment to preserving objects of historical significance, such as Rookwood tile, stained glass windows and stonework.

The projected cost of the revised master plan is $50 million to $55 million, roughly the same as that in the Schools Facilities Commission's preliminary report.

The school board is expected to vote on the plan in October, in time to place a bond issue on the November ballot.

We didn't have a chance'
Despite the seeming consensus of several hundred citizens who attended the two community meetings, there is plenty of vocal opposition to the plan.

Carmen McKeehan, whose two children attend Norwood Middle and High schools, served on the steering committee. She says she is troubled about the way decisions were handled.

"I went into the steering committee with a totally open mind," she says. "Then the facilitator opened the meeting by saying, 'We all know that new is better.' I felt that we were being manipulated."

McKeehan says the committee spent a great deal of time writing questions for the community meetings to make sure, she says, "the citizens were all on the same page. And then DeJong added questions of their own. We didn't have a chance."

Wehmeyer, a regular presence at city council and school board meetings, participated in both planning meetings. She says she was disappointed when participants were told to vote for one of three options.

"I didn't really want that," Wehmeyer says. "I wanted something else, and they told me to write it down as a comment. They are telling us what we want. We want to be able to make up our own minds and not be steered."

Wehmeyer says Norwood is the best location in the world for a good school system. Because of the city's size, children can walk to school. Buses aren't needed. People tend to know their neighbors.

"Education and living goes together," she says. "It's important that we get the coattails of that and bring it back."

McKeehan agrees.

"Schools are the cornerstone of our community," she says. "We just didn't have enough discussion on this issue."

Wehmeyer, too, has doubts.

"It was too much, too fast," she says. "Is our vision a good vision?"

Superintendent Rider says it is.

"There was a fierce sense of pride in the room," she says. "Tough decisions were made to keep the community strong."

Rider began her career teaching French and German at Norwood High School in 1976, rising through the ranks to become chief executive officer of the district.

Meanwhile, the battle continues on other fronts. Norwood's population is changing. Of the 938 people the 2000 census reported as speaking a language other than English at home, 337 indicated they spoke English "less than very well."

Three years ago, there were only 15 Norwood students for whom English was a second language. Last year there were 70. The district has two Spanish-speaking teachers designing a program for them.

In the coming year, grants that pay for health aides and social workers in the schools expire. Alternatives have to be found.

Although the schools' 2002 report cards from the Ohio Department of Education show the district no longer on academic watch, 17 of 27 performance indicators remain "not met."

Student performance on proficiency tests, while steadily improving, still falls below state averages. Plenty of work remains in the classrooms, whether brand new or a century old.

"Air conditioning will not improve test scores," Rider says.

On that point, Wehmeyer agrees.

Norwood had been a city for barely a decade when the citizens who built the Allison Street School faced their own touch choices. The stakes were no lower then than they are now.

"The important thing is the actual teaching of the children in the schools," Wehmeyer says. ©

Norwood Facts

Median age: 34.1

Median income: $32,223

Percent of residents age 25 & older with high school education: 70.8%

Population (by race)

White: 20,429 (94.3%)

African-American: 509 (2.3%)

Hispanic: 401 (1.9%)

Asian: 67 (0.8%)

Owner-occupied housing: 51.5%

School district enrollment: 2,898

Students whose families applied for free/reduced lunch: 42%

Average number of students per teacher: 15

Total annual spending per student: $7,592

Sources: 2000 U.S. Census and 2001-2002 Norwood City Schools District Profile