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The Auditorium Conundrum

(A more comprehensive version of this story is also on this week's "The State of Ohio" show on Ohio Public Television. You can find that story by looking under the State of Ohio tab at the top of the homepage.)

School districts who are building new schools with state money are sometimes surprised by one of the rules. Those dollars cannot be used for something that is in many of the older buildings being replaced….auditoriums. That creates some tough decisions for school districts as they decide how to move forward with their building plans. Take a look at how some districts are doing it.

The historic auditorium in Washington Court House in south central Ohio has served the local school district since 1939. It has newly upholstered seats, air conditioning and an old pipe organ that has been restored through a combination of community contributions and money from the state’s capital budget. Pam Feick, a retired school counselor, spearheaded those efforts. She says the auditorium is a vital part of the community.

“I used this when I was a little kid and all of the folks who have gone through the school district here reminisce about being in a choir concert or being in a performance or a band thing and so it’s important to the community.”

Feick is now writing grants for new rigging and improvements to the lighting. None of the work could be paid for with funds from the state when the district built new buildings years ago. The state wouldn’t provide money to build a new one in the new buildings either. Rick Savors with the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission says there’s good reason why the state doesn’t allow districts to build new auditoriums or fix up old ones.

“As we look at how we build a building, if you take a look at the cost per square foot, a sloped floor, fixed seat auditorium is one of the most expensive spaces to build inside a school building. So it would take up a lot of money for a room that doesn’t have a whole lot of purposes.”

The new superintendent at the Washington Court House City Schools understands the conundrum well. Tom Bailey worked for the Three Rivers Local School District near Cincinnati when its new building was constructed. He says a lot of debate, thought and even tears went into the decision of what to do with the district’s old auditorium.

“So we ended up selling our building. It was bought by a church. They demolished it and used the land. However, out of it we got a seven-million-dollar state of the art facility which rivals, in Hamilton County, if you are familiar with Hamilton County, it rivals the School for the Creative and Performing Arts. We have 24 fly systems in our auditorium. We have a built in orchestra pit into the stage. Our opening concert, actually the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra agreed to do our opening concert because they could fit 120 musicians on our stage.”

An hour northeast of Washington Court House is the Lancaster City School district. Superintendent Steve Wigton is facing similar decisions. His district is in the middle of a building campaign.  Five new elementary schools have cafetoriums….cafeterias with a stage on one wall. State money could be and was used for those. And while Wigton says the junior high schools, now under construction, won’t have auditoriums like the ones in the current middle schools, they will have what are called “auditeriums” instead.

“Your student dining area, they co-fund that, co-fund the stage, so what we did was get retractable auditorium seating. So we’ll have retractable seating, similar to athletic bleachers, that come out but these are auditorium seats and we’ll have seating for 650 and so that’s how we resolved the issue.”

He says a focus group came up with the auditerium option. He says the retractable seating for the junior highs in his district is fully funded by local dollars. But when it comes to replacing the district’s high school with a new one a few years from now, Wigton says it will have a dedicated auditorium.

“You have better acoustics, better lighting, better-performing venue for the students and you can also rent that facility out for public use.”

School leaders say real auditoriums are really important to school districts so most build some sort of performance space into their new buildings, even if the state won’t pay for a dedicated auditorium.  

Contact Jo Ingles at