Sign of the Times

Ever since the district asked the school buses to stop idling while they waited for the kids, I’m happy to live kitty-corner from a school.  I live kitty corner from what used to be John Marshal High School, and Webster Magnet school and now is Barack and Michele Obama Service Learning Elementary.   This school is one of a very few in the Saint Paul Public Schools (SPPS) district without a sign in front of the building.  They should probably have a sign.  The process around this particular sign has been dismissive of the neighborhood concerns and made people who might not otherwise care about the issue feel bullied and ignored.  The people who do care are now outraged.  The budget for this particular sign is nothing short of ridiculous given the current budget meltdown and school closings.  This is happening in other Saint Paul neighborhoods as well.

Architectural Drawing of the Proposed Sign.

Proposed Sign with Scale Reference

We got a notice about 3 weeks ago that the school was going to be getting a new sign in front of the entrance and wanted a variance from the city zoning department to make their sign do some extra special things.  First, they wanted it to be seven feet tall. Over Seven Feet Tall.   Secondly, they wanted to make the total square footage bigger than what is currently allowed.   Lastly, they wanted it to have an LED display which would scroll and change information more frequently than currently allowed.  The body of the sign would be plastic, lit from inside.

Here’s the plan so far:   Link to Variance Request Document

The school is located on one end of a gigantic lot, and faces Holly Avenue.  The gigantic lot is almost entirely behind the building. That’s where the baseball field and the playground are.  The entrance on the other hand, is across the street from residential homes.

Location of the sign is lower center of the map.

Map of School Property with Proposed Sign Location

When our notices  about the requested variances came, many neighbors were not happy.  I wasn’t happy.  We collected signatures on a petition, went to the zoning board hearing, community council meetings and wrote letters.

I like to think of myself as a pretty reasonable person.   I think the sign is a waste of money, and that it would be ugly and out of place in a Victorian neighborhood, but  I don’t think they should just go without a sign.  The argument that their school is one of a very few without a sign is a legitimate one.  I understand the need to be able to find a school (grandparents coming to programs, parents for conferences, visiting teachers, etc).  The district would pay for the sign out of the capital budget (which has to be used for improvements to the facility, not for daily operating expenses).  This doesn’t affect the building budget it’s free money for the school.

During a pretty heated meeting at the Summit-University Planning Council, I butted in and asked the district guy and the architect guy if it wouldn’t be possible to meet in more dialog friendly venue and try to figure out what it would take to meet their visibility and communication goals in a way that didn’t offend the people who had to look at the thing every day.

Architect guy was very friendly and SPPS guy was receptive.  I gave them each my card, took the architect’s card and waited a couple days.   I didn’t hear from them, so I dropped an email to the school principal (who had thus far been incommunicado) and the architect.  I asked for a meeting date.  I heard back from the architect immediately, saying he’d be in touch with the rest of the parties and get back to me.  The principal emailed me a week later suggesting two dates.  She also mentioned that the church across the street from them had a lighted sign.

I emailed back, saying we’d do whichever date they could agree on.  I also mentioned that the church’s sign isn’t seven feet tall. It’s about 4 feet tall, and it’s set in a rain garden, so the above ground level height is actually pretty short.  I didn’t mention that the church paid for its own sign and that even so, most of the neighbors hated it.  I  mentioned that I thought people could be persuaded to accept a sign, but that the height and the scrolling, and back-lit nature were really what had people worked up.

I told her we were looking forward to having a dialog about it and that she’d probably find that the people in the neighborhood were very supportive of her school on the whole.

I received the following email a few days ago:

“Thank you for bringing your concerns to our attention. I will not be holding a meeting. Signage projects are a capital bonds process run by the district. If you need more information about this process, please contact Kevin Umidon in facilities.

It turns out that the principal is leaving at the end of the year.

Well, now I’m mad.  I’m mad that nobody asked the neighbors for input.  Mad that SPPS and the Obama school seem bound and determined to do what they like without regard for strong and unified pressure from the neighbors around the school. I’m mad that the email the principal sent out to one concerned neighbor said the sign was only going to be 4 feet tall.  Their drawings show it is going to be over 7 feet tall.

I’m baffled too.  I’m baffled how it is that the school district, which is funded by tax dollars, can justify such expensive signs right now, even as schools are being closed.   It doesn’t make sense to me.  Eighteen thousand dollars is a lot of money.  Multiply that by the 8 schools that are supposed to be getting new signs and you come up with real money that should be spent on things that benefit kids.  This particular school has steps which are crumbling off in chunks.

I decided to send an email to  Mister Umidon and see if he’d be willing to discuss the issue.  He isn’t.

“Ms. Morgan,

I believe you may have misinterpreted Mr. McGlory’s comments.  What he said is that the District, as well as our design consultants, would be (and are) more than willing to answer any questions or comment on any concerns anyone has at the public District Community Council meetings. The District presents its designs to the Council and anyone in attendance.  This is the forum within which the District dialogues with the community regarding proposed designs, and it is at this meeting that any of your comments, and those of others, can be heard.  Please contact your District Council for more information regarding these meetings.  Thank you.

Kevin S. Umidon, AIA
General Manager, Facility Planning
Saint Paul Public Schools

Many of my neighbors think there is no reason the school needs a sign at all.  “What the hell are they advertising?  Who are they selling to?”  Some think their tax dollars shouldn’t be going to the public schools to begin with.  I’m not quite there.  I think identifying the school and having some uniformity within the district is a reasonable goal.  I love public schools and the amount of anger this is generating concerns me.  The fact that the SPPS district seems uninterested in resolving the issue makes me wonder if I’m the only one concerned about their public image.   One of the justifications for these sign is that they want to communicate better with the surrounding community.  So far they’ve communicated that they don’t care about the relationship with the community at all.


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