Aurora mayor touts successes in city's land preservation, recreation efforts
The future of Aurora, both as a city and as a school district, is promising based on the recent past, an audience was told at the Aurora Chamber of Commerce's luncheon at Bertram Inn and Conference Center last week.
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Mayor Ann Womer Benjamin gave the annual state-of-the-city presentation, emphasizing the city's land preservation, recreational and environmental sustainability efforts in particular.
Superintendent Mike Roberto gave the annual state-of-the-schools presentation, spending much of the time talking about education during a pandemic and the district's strategic vision.
Progress continuing in city
Womer Benjamin, who was elected to her third term in November, said much has been done during the past eight years, especially in the areas of preservation and recreation.
"We have worked hard to control development and preserve green space through the purchase of more than 200 acres of land and we opened three new parks with hiking paths, high quality athletic fields and a historic building attributed to one of our founders, the Sheldon Deed House," she said.
She said that this year, work is expected to begin on a hike and bike trail. This followed a court battle lasting several years with FirstEnergy Corp. that resulted in concessions and benefits, including a recreational easement along the railroad corridor from Chamberlain Road in Mantua to Treat Road.
"We will be taking the first steps this year to transform part of that right-of-way into a hike and bike trail, assessing the feasibility and designing a leg of the trail from Chamberlain to State Route 82," said Womer Benjamin. "We believe it will be a start to a tremendous opportunity for not only recreation but also revitalization, particularly in the historic Station District at New Hudson and 82."
"In addition, we will take advantage of our foresight in purchasing the Cvrk property on [Route] 82 several years ago and begin initial work to create access through that property from Hartman Park to parts south," she said.
Womer Benjamin said the city will continue to purchase land to increase greenspace and control development. Last year, 83 acres that might have ended up as a residential development was purchased on Page Road, adjacent to Sunny Lake. The land will instead be available as greenspace for public use.
"As I have been told on more than one occasion, the best way to control how land is used is for the city to own it ourselves," said Womer Benjamin.
The city is also in discussions to secure public access to Geauga Lake for recreational use, even as land on the Bainbridge side is being developed. In connection with the Geauga Lake area, voters approved the rezoning from industrial to mixed use and recently achieved a joint economic development district there with Bainbridge Township, which will provide tax advantages for the city and aid in redevelopment.
The city also recently learned that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has awarded it a $2 million grant, with the city to provide an additional $600,000, to improve storm water practices in residential areas near Geauga Lake and purchase flood-prone homes there.
"We have already been working with residents interested in being part of this project," said Womer Benjamin.
This summer, a moratorium on new development that began in November 2020 will end. During that time, a zoning and density study has been done and a storm water model and plan is in the works. Storm water requirements have been strengthened during the last6 few years and and zoning for small lots is more limited now. More changes could be coming.
A new master plan and review commission has also been formed, as required under the city's charter every five years.
"The Commission’s recommendations and updated Master Plan will provide guidance for the future development of the city, identifying things we may want to consider in different neighborhoods and locations around Aurora," said Womer Benjamin.
In terms of infrastructure and capital improvements, there have been $62 million worth over the last eight years, including 37 miles of road paving, 2.5 miles of sidewalks and storm and waste water upgrades, as well as four new water lines replacing 100-year-old lines. This year, the city plans on completing $9 million in upgrades to its Central Wastewater Treatment Plant and is conducting a study to determine why storm water seeps into the waste water system, swamping it during heavy rains.
There is also a $4-million upgrade this year of traffic signals, including a grant of more than $3 million, to improve traffic flow and safety.
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The city is big on alternative energy. It has energy efficiency initiatives fund, with the money coming from the city's electric aggregation program provider. It provides electricity produced entirely from green sources like solar and wind.
"We are tapping that fund for the forthcoming installation of four electric car charging stations in the library parking lot, for which we also received a $30,000 EPA grant," said Womer Benjamin. "In addition, we are working with a consultant for the possible construction of solar panels to serve our wastewater treatment plants."
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Womer Benjamin also praised the city's safety forces.
"We have a very safe community, which is borne out by low crime statistics and a reduction in criminal activity since 2019, with the most serious offenses in the theft and fraud categories," she said. "Our 27 full-time and seven part-time officers are out on the roads 24 hours a day conducting preventive patrols, responding to calls for service, and enforcing traffic laws throughout the city, evidenced by the fact that traffic stops are up 33 percent since 2019."
More:Police chief says fraud/ID theft a rising problem in Aurora in 2021
She also acknowledged the fire department, which "remains one of the most popular groups of employees in the city, on behalf of whom I frequently receive kudos and thanks."
"They are the ones who are on the scene when you or a loved one is ill or needing emergency medical treatment or assistance," said Womer Benjamin. "The department fielded more than 2,500 calls in 2021, which have continued to increase in the last several years."
The department is adding an additional firefighter/paramedic this year and just received a replacement for a 1987 ladder truck.
Womer Benjamin said the city's finances are sound and economic development is healthy. Last year, the city received nearly $1 million in federal CARES Act funding, used mostly for safety salaries, enhanced cleaning services and personal protective equipment, and is expecting $1.7 million this year via the federal American Rescue Plan Act.
The allocation of most of that money is yet to be decided, but $300,000 will be used for dam repairs at Sunny Lake, said Womer Benjamin.
Aurora School District thinking strategically
Roberto said that during his state-of-the schools presentation last year, he spoke about challenges due to the pandemic, but felt that things would improve due to dropping COVID numbers. But that was thwarted by the Delta and Omicron variants, making the second year of the pandemic even more difficult than the first. But in June, the district developed a plan that has been an enormous help.
"It was one that from early July to late January, used county, local, and school district data to inform our decisions rather than relying on our gut feelings or opinions," he said. "It proved to be the most transparent plan for a school district that I came across when comparing it to districts across Ohio as it utilized our district website to display our COVID-19 data dashboard which shares information with the parents and the Aurora community as a whole. In short, the plan called for requiring masking when our COVID data was high and recommending masking when our numbers were low."
As a result, he said, masking was required 55 percent of the time in schools and only recommended the rest of the time, but it allowed students to be in school all of the time and he is optimistic things will get better.
"Now this is where I should probably stop and explain that being a life-long Cleveland Browns fan, I, by default, have that next year is our year mentality," said Roberto."So keep that in mind when I say that, as I look around and see our COVID numbers dropping and I’m feeling like we are turning some corners I do expect next school year to be the year we put the pandemic behind us.By the way, I do also believe the Browns are going to be back in the playoffs next year. Just wait and see."
Roberto said he sees resilience in the staff and students and staff is strong on collaboration in coming up with innovative ways to support and educate students.
"I see the lessons and activities taking place that are designed to help learners become better problem solvers and critical thinkers by not telling students what to think, but instead putting them in situations to see patterns and make their own connections between what they do know with what they don’t know yet," he said. "I see classrooms designed to focus on preparing young people for life more so than just being conduits to deliver content
Roberto said the district's motto, "Aurora Learners-Future Ready," is the explanation "behind what we do and therefore the driving force behind decisions we make each day."
He said the district strives to develop six competencies in students, including, resilience, empathy, balance, collaboration, innovative, and critical thinking.
"As young people progress through grades PreK-12, these six competencies or roots are nurtured at each level," said Roberto. "Ultimately as our Greenmen get ready to graduate, they will be deeply rooted and will use these competencies to anchor into new environments and contribute to the benefit of all outside of school no matter if they choose to enroll in college, enlist in the military, or find employment straight out of high school."
This strategic vision has made Aurora schools strong, said Roberto, noting that Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report magazines have consistently ranked Aurora High school among the top two percent of schools in the nation.
The district looks at developing "the whole child," said Roberto. Besides critical thinking skills, collaboration is also instilled in students. An example is an initiative at district elementary schools.
"You can see an example of this collaboration taking place during an activity called Number Talks," said Roberto. "During math class young people are provided with a mathematical question or problem and instead of telling them how to solve the problem, the teachers ask questions. What do you notice? Does this look like something you have seen before? And when a student answers, it is often followed by, 'Can anyone add to that answer or want to dispute this claim?' Having these collaborative conversations is a powerful way to help young people build their own understanding in mathematics rather than memorizing a set of rules or algorithms."
Balance is another competency. For one thing, education opportunities include music, fine arts and literature. In addition, the district provides specialists to help teachers help students with behavioral difficulties and who struggle with reading and math, and help students grow in "social emotional wellbeing." At Miller Elementary School, kindergarteners are being taught toregulate their own emotions.
Innovation is another competency, which Roberto said includes both technology and helping students think differently.
"For example, at AHS we offer an Innovative Design Class which, thanks to the help from the Aurora Schools Foundation, literally houses cutting edge technology including laser cutters, 3D printers, and electronics," said Roberto. "However, as alluded to earlier, innovation is really about thinking differently and in this Innovative Design class young people engage in team work and social interactions through the use of the design thinking method to work in the disciplines of Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics, STEM. This set-upultimately could lead to the opportunity to design and create actual products that add unique value to some dynamic of society and solve real-world problems in and beyond the Aurora City Schools. This is the very definition of innovation."
Finally, Roberto shared some stories about the development of empathy. For example, at Miller elementary, kindergarteners, who "have a lot to say," are being taught to be listeners.
"We show them what it looks like and sounds like when we listen to others," he said. "Picture kindergartners seated knee-to-knee and discussing a piece of evidence from a book they liked the best. Children are empowered to use their listening ears and reply back to their partners. Being an empathetic listener is also an important building block for collaborative learning environments."
In conclusion, Roberto said faculty and staff have a commitment to putting the students first and provide them with a "safe nurturing learning environment."
"We are deeply committed to protecting and promoting the strengths of Aurora; and undoubtedly one of them is the Aurora Schools," said Roberto. "I’m honored to lead this wonderful school system in such a great community and we appreciate the amazing support you give to our district. It is truly a fantastic time to be an Aurora Greenmen.
Reporter Jeff Saunders can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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