In the first few weeks of the 2023-2024 school year here in the Forest Hills School District, the Superintendent and Board have made several critical decisions on short timetables that have left parents wondering:
On August 29th, 2023, a soft-lockdown was enacted at 7 of the district's 9 schools. In the first email sent to communicate the lockdown (full email here), Superintendent Hook stated only that "we located an unauthorized individual walking around the Anderson High School campus a short while ago" followed by his second email (available here) which stated, "After a thorough search of the area, it has been determined that the unknown individual is no longer on district property" both quotes seem to imply the man was outside the school and then somehow disappeared.
Hook's email from today (shown above) explains a more serious breach. He provides details explaining that a staff member discovered an adult male had entered Anderson High school through a propped-open side-door and found his way into the hallways during school hours.
Several sources advised us a week ago following the Forest Hills Council meeting (days before the district communicated to the public) that Superintendent Hook had shared the details now provided in an email. We at AdvocateFHSD.org have been gathering information about the incident, and before publishing anything, we reached out to the district yesterday asking for any statement on the situation and submitting a PRR for the surveillance video. Our full email is here.
This past summer, a well-known and well-liked student mural promoting inclusion was covered by a new banner as part of a culture/branding initiative by Forest Hills.
Community awareness of the action occurred around the time of the 2023-2024 Nagel Open House, and since that time, members of our group have been advocating for the relocation of the banner to allow the student-painted artwork to remain as a symbol of acceptance for all Nagel students.
Today, students have informed us that when they arrived to Nagel this morning, the banner had been removed (as seen below) in what appears to be an unauthorized manner.
Advocate FHSD leadership and members categorically do not condone the destruction of school property at any time, for any reason. At the same time, it is a reasonable and logical conclusion that the act to hide the mural has clearly impacted students, some very personally.
While we acknowledge aggression and physical acts are not the best way to resolve issues, it is clear that the decision to cover the mural will continue to negatively affect students, and there exists a very simple solution - listening to the students asking to allow the inclusive mural to remain visible.
Students in Turpin's GSA independently wrote the district administration, asking for the mural to be moved further signaling the impact to them personally, as well as the apparent miscalculation of the administration regarding potential negative impact to students.
We will continue to encourage district administrators to replace the banner on a different wall and insist they do not cover up this student artwork that is clearly meaningful to many.
If you are so inclined, we suggest an email to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org to express your thoughts on allowing the mural to remain uncovered, and finding another location for the culture initiative's vinyl banner.
We have also heard that other actions may have been taken today that negatively affect students. We do not yet have evidence to support the claims, so we also ask here: if your student has been asked by a staff member, administrator or board member to remove an article of clothing, sticker, pin, button or keychain because it demonstrates support for one of these celebrated communities shown in the mural by a staff member, administrator or board member, please reach out to us at AdvocateFHSD@gmail.com we would like to hear about the details of the incident.
As a group, Advocate FHSD supports inclusivity and acceptance of every student's personal identity, religion and community of origin – whether that identity is theirs alone or one shared by many, we encourage understanding and acceptance.
That support includes students’ expression of their identities in all legally-acceptable forms–including t-shirts, stickers or other symbols that promote a culture of belonging and, we are committed to continue to respectfully advocate on behalf of a welcoming, warm and accepting culture for all of our community's students and staff.
The “Culture of Kindness” resolution was dictated by an unelected community member, “typed” and introduced by board member Jonas, and passed by a majority (not unanimous) vote. We were all taken by surprise and a little frightened about what it meant for our students. Especially since many of the board members do not appear to have a vested interest in the success of our schools, or students attending the Forest Hills School District (FHSD) themselves, and they seem preoccupied with the “culture war” topic du jour.
As FHSD parents, one thing that we have kept an eye on in the wake of the resolution is the protection of our student’s first amendment rights. For instance, in the case of the student-led walkout over the cancellation of Diversity Day, a portion of students left Turpin and Anderson high schools quietly without disrupting class and exercised their right to peaceful assembly. Since art is a form of speech, we also kept an eye on the murals throughout the buildings. In particular, the Nagel mural about diversity that was painted (with permission) by students has become a symbol of belonging to future students in the years to come.
The diversity mural has been covered by a large banner before the start of the 2023-24 school year to the dismay of some parents and students. We have been told by school leadership that banners have been installed as part of an overall strategy to create a culture where staff can be more proactive, less reactive, and more … inclusive.
Nagel students arriving to the open house tonight were stunned to discover that the student-painted inclusive mural celebrating the diverse authenticity that our students represent has been hidden behind a black tarp with the simple words, "Honest Connections". Several parents received shocked texts like the one shown here as students learned of the change.
In June of 2022, a reliable source suggested that the new board members stated their intentions to pass the Culture of Kindness resolution and use that as a basis to remove the student-created mural from the view of Nagel students and staff. The resolution, passed by the Republican-endorsed school board members Bibb, Jonas, and Hausfeld resulted in an on-going legal battle and depositions of several board members and Superintendent Hook (Depositions can be found here for Jonas, Rasmussen, and Hook) and a former student writing a scathing Op-Ed in the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Rules suggest the board needs to take an open vote to remove the mural, but in the absence of this, a principal may make the decision under the category of "routine maintenance" with the support of the Superintendent and board. Advocate FHSD has submitted a public records request to understand the source of the decision and determine if any link to the Culture of Kindness effort exists.
Students leaving the Open House were informally asked about their feelings on the change, and several stated they were disappointed, and one stated "it felt like a shock, like that it's not okay to celebrate who we are here. Why would they hide something that lets people feel its okay to be themselves here?"
From a timing perspective, wherever this decision came from, it is incredibly poor; in relation to the start of school and open houses & the shock that students would feel, not to mention the potential impact on active campaigns for open board seats. Could this decision possibly drive voter enthusiasm & stronger voter turnout for candidates running on a platform of inclusivity for all students?
If the members of the administration were responsible, this is a significant misstep with regard to the community relationship, and we've heard from a number of teachers that no communication to staff was initiated, either. With a board meeting scheduled for August 16th, why not announce the intent to change, or take a vote by the board to ensure transparency and protect the community from speculation and overreaction and allow parents to prepare students for the change?
Banners similar to the one shown are placed in all stairwells which indicates some consistency, and other murals not originally targeted by the "4 for Forest Hills" that drove less controversy are still visible. Some may appreciate that the decision to hide the mural with a large printed banner suggests they had time to order the sign in advance, why not take that time to communicate the intent in advance at the upcoming board meeting and to staff as well?
We will continue to update the blog as more information becomes available, and evidence of the origins of the decision are provided.
As a side note, Advocate FHSD will be creating & donating 1000 free stickers of the mural in honor of the student art and making the stickers available for students to add to binders, water bottles, notebooks and lunch containers should they want one to remind themselves and others that in this community, no matter your race, gender, religion or sexual orientation there are more people that celebrate our community's diversity than those that do not. Please stay tuned, we'll be digging in to see where the origin of the decision lies, and why no communication of the change was provided to the community in advance.
Anderson resident and former FHSD Board Member Rich Neuman has decades of experience in deal-making. As President of Baseball Development for Mandalay Baseball Properties and then as a VP of Major Accounts for Brailsford & Dunlavey, he pitched communities on new/renovated sports facilities and negotiated millions of dollars in sponsorships, naming rights, etc . He also was/is an expert in relationship development and innovative proposals that use a mixture of public and private funds (and optimistic revenue projections) to secure financing.
Now, as a consultant for Elevar Design Group (formerly SFA Architects), Neumann has proposed the sale of Anderson High School for private, mixed-use development. High school students would move to the “Bartels campus,” and elementary students would be reshuffled as part of a consolidation. Innovative, indeed.
To succeed in deal-making one must be persistent, and Neumann is nothing if not persistent. In fact, he attempted to consolidate the two FHSD high schools in 2010 when he was on the school board, and was involved in an earlier more detailed study in 2005.
During that scheme, he and others were sued for closed door meetings that were subject to sunshine law. Once the Cincinnati Enquirer’s lawsuit brought the issue to light, public meetings were held and the community responded that no—they did not want to consolidate high schools.
In 2015, he brought forward another plan to sell Anderson High School: “The Plan that Makes Too Much Sense". Many of the players involved in 2015 are the same players involved now: Neuman, Tom Fernandez of Elevar/SFA, Andrew Brossart of Bradley Payne Advisors (formerly with 5/3 Securities), etc. As part of the 2015 plan, Anderson High School would have sold for a dollar as part of a multi-part land swap placing a new high school on Beech Acres property. Ultimately, all parties agreed that deal was not feasible. Notably, the plan would use the $25 million earmarked for Anderson renovations toward the new school.
The Anatomy of a Rich Neumann Development Proposal:
We reviewed hundreds of news articles and dozens of public records about Neumann’s prior deals with municipalities across the US (and even Ottawa, CA). We discovered a few themes with notable similarities to “Project Intrepid.”
The current school board has stated on multiple occasions that financial problems have been inherited from the previous school board. Alana Cropper is the District Treasurer and has worked under many boards, including the present one. She has done a great job attempting to educate this school board about the district financials. Alana has even presented multiple options for an operating levy in either 2022 or 2023 to avoid large cuts and last resorts like consolidation. Her explanation can be found in a video from the April 6, 2022 Work Session. We would now like to present the 2021 Financial Report to you for your consideration:
Dear Superintendent Hook and Forest Hills Board Members,
Our community is one that deeply cares for district excellence.
Two weeks ago, the community was made broadly aware of the intent of the board to re-shape the face of this beloved district and that conversations, both in person and virtual, have been happening between the board and Elevar representative Rich Neumann since March.
Following the community feedback during and after the public board meeting September 21, Superintendent Larry Hook issued a letter with this commitment claiming “You can be sure that factual, reliable information on this topic will come from myself and the district. We will share more details as they become available.”
To date, no new facts, details, or clarity to the decision-making process or proposal have been provided to the community, despite a plan being presented for 2 hours to the board members in executive session following the public meeting September 21. Communication from Elevar CEO also re-directs community inquiries to the district for the details of the plan.
This community deserves more than an email asking us to trust them with such an important decision, when to date, all activity has been secretive, and requested records have not been shared.
To prevent a further loss of trust in the district leadership at a time when the need for transparency is paramount, we respectfully request that the district issue a fact sheet or share the plan as it was outlined to them by Elevar in executive session.
Thank you for advocating for district excellence with us,
Advocate FHSD Board Chairs
Kimberly Olthoff, Sara Sudkamp, Sean Martin, Kristen Kalonick, Katie Quehl
Advocate FHSD’s Statement in Response to Katie Stewart’s 9/21/2022 Motion
At the 9/21/2022 regular meeting of the Forest Hills School District (FHSD) Board of Education, Katie Stewart motioned to vote on limiting the use of school restrooms to the gender listed on a student’s birth certificate. This goes against Advocate FHSD’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility (DEIA) commitment defined below.
Celebrating the Whole Person:
Advocate FHSD is passionate about supporting a school district that celebrates every student and faculty member's uniqueness as a human being. Creating a supportive and accepting environment for students and faculty who are diverse in age, gender, identity, race, sexual orientation, physical or mental ability, ethnicity, belief, etc. is important and the right thing to do. We expect this from the Forest Hills School District and will continue to advocate for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility at all times.
The practice or quality of including or involving people from a range of different ages, genders, identities, races, sexual orientations, physical or mental abilities, ethnicities, beliefs, etc.
The fair, just, and impartial treatment of all individuals while recognizing that each person has unique circumstances and needs that require different resources to reach their full potential.
Recognizing, appreciating, and celebrating a person's diverse perspective and the unique point-of-view that they bring to the overall group or community.
Design, construction, development, and maintenance of facilities, information and communication technology, programs, and services so that all people can fully and independently use them.
This motion does not align with our definition of equity and fails to create a supportive and accepting environment within the FHSD schools.
According to GLSEN research, 60 percent of transgender students report being prohibited from using the bathroom or locker room that aligns with their gender identity. Over three-quarters (76 percent) of transgender students felt unsafe at school because of their gender; and transgender people (specifically trans girls and women) are at very high risk of experiencing violence throughout their lives, starting even before adolescence.
We are responsible for our student’s achievement levels as well as their mental health. We are tasked with caring for the whole child as parents and educators. Research shows no correlation between these types of restrictive bathroom policies and safety for non-transgender individuals. Policies like the one proposed by Katie Stewart harm transgender students in both the areas of academics and mental health. This kind of policy will undoubtedly cause severe anxiety and depression due to the increased verbal and physical abuse transgender students will experience from peers. The fear of being singled out by other students every time a trans child is forced to use a “special restroom” or a restroom that prioritizes the gender assigned at birth is insurmountable.
Therefore, Advocate FHSD denounces this motion and any future policy that violates human rights and po2266 in the Forest Hills School District policy manual. We will also continue to advocate for trans students according to our DEIA commitment with the full weight of the community behind us.
Board members Bibb, Hausfeld, and Jonas campaigned on the importance of transparency; their actions to date regarding the challenging financial situation this district faces have been veiled, obfuscated, and in some cases, intentionally clandestine to avoid the public scrutiny of their under-supported efforts to reduce the operating budget through consolidation of schools.
Their secretive efforts to meet beyond the eyes of the public were first observed at the beginning of 2022, when they were captured on camera spending hours inside the home of a supporter, avoiding the large-group meeting structure and convincing only themselves that they were flying below the radar.
At the April board meeting, Board president Hausfeld and member Bibb made statements during that hinted at an effort to bring the discussion into the sunshine as part of a committee during Agenda item 16.0, board comments. As of the date of this writing September 21, and the update October 7th, no committee has been formed.
In June, a FOIA request unearthed an email from Board Member Jonas to then Superintendent Scot Prebles, admonishing him for supporting the PTO/PTA activities by several schools to build outdoor classrooms, where Jonas wrote on June 2, 2022, “how can you approve this plan when the board is discussing consolidation?”
Community members have pointed out that Facilities Manager John Eckert, along with one other staff member in the FHSD administration have attended at least one meeting with employees of downtown-Cincinnati-based Elevar, a design firm that has worked with Cincinnati Public Schools and St. Bernard-Elmwood. According to their website, Former FHSD Board Member and real estate developer Rich Neumann is employed by Elevar as a consultant.
According to these community members, the conversations with Elevar outline the intent–which was not openly communicated to the public– to sell Anderson High School and move its 1200 students to a single-high school at the site of Turpin High School and Mercer Elementary.
Along with Mercer, all district students would be redistricted, affecting everyone in our district.
The former Anderson High School property would likely be re-zoned to mixed-use, and developers may plan to build commercial property, some residential spaces, and office spaces in order to generate additional funding through a financial vehicle called a TIF, or Tax Increment Financing.
Consultant, community member and development investor Rich Neumann (self-written bio here) has been heavily involved in the process, serving as a go-between for the board members Bibb, Hausfeld and Jonas to avoid oversight & scrutiny of their discussions. Mr. Neumann has been communicating via text to personal phones, and through administrative members of the district.
This may be a violation of the open meetings act and sunshine laws, something Mr. Neumann was fined for during his term on the school board in 2010, where there was a passionate community debate at that time over proposed consolidation options as well. See the article by the Cincinnati Enquirer in 2010 here.
Neumann served two non-consecutive terms on the FHSD board. He lost a bid for a seat following his campaign in 2013. His interest in the One High School vision appears to be a passion project, regardless of the community’s broader views. He was quoted in the Forest Hills Journal (a now defunct publication) in October of 2013 saying, “I have always believed a one high school configuration would be in the long-term best interest of the district”. He further stated, “Reducing the number of buildings and improving the quality of those that remain will decrease. The district voters disagreed, and Neumann lost his bid for a seat on the FHSD school board in November 2013.
On a past P3 development stadium project for Neumann’s former company Mandalay Baseball, the organization was accused of “veiled secrecy” on the project (see article, by the Star News Online). In this article in the Star News Online, he stated, "we’ve been transparent when it has been legally necessary, but there’s no reason to be transparent when it could negatively impact negotiations for the deal.”
The effort to sell any Real Property is governed by Ohio Law 3313.41, and requires an arduous process and strict adherence to the detailed process before property over $2,500 may be sold. We understand it is possible that the board has already met with attorneys, architects and possibly with developers to discuss the sale outside of the governing process guidelines.
The sale process, which requires 2 weeks of public notice, allows charter schools first right of refusal for the property under Ohio guidelines. A private sale is only possible after an auction has occurred.
Currently, land surrounding Anderson High School is zoned as residential; changing the zoning requires approval by the county after they’ve compared the plan to the community initiative. The process to approve a zoning change involves the Hamilton County Commissioners office, the Township Trustees (all of whom have met with Elevar prior to the September 21 board meeting), and ultimately the buyer who would request the change.
A per-student acreage minimum is outlined by the Ohio School Design Manual to establish a single high school, as outlined in the research performed by committees in 2014. To support the existing ~2200 high school students, it is advised that35 acres plus 1 acre for every 100 students is the recommended baseline. To meet this, the District would need roughly 60-65 acres of land, an acreage confirmed in the 2015 plan documents. Requiring an additional 12-17 acres to the existing 48+ acres at the current Turpin / Mercer location. Has the board or the developers approached owners of adjacent land, such as the Knights of Columbus (16.7 acres), private property behind Mercer (~6.0 acres)? Are those acres even ‘usable’ for development to meet the requirements?
In addition, what is the environmental impact of further development? The Hillside Trust has already stepped in to preserve the hillside adjacent to Turpin toward Clough and prevent damage to the hill and to Clough Creek (and the history of the Miller-Leuser house). How would further development of the land by Turpin affect the stability of the hillside? Has this been studied?
How would the additional traffic on Clough Pike or any modifications to existing roadways impact Clough Creek? Has the board or the consultants considered the environmental impact by reviewing the environmental impact study from 2020? Have any additional studies taken place?
Traffic Implications & Township Investment
Would there be an additional investment be required of the township or Hamilton County to shore up Clough Creek to support additional traffic?
The most recent study of Clough Pike demonstrates that the road already faces many issues with vehicle accidents and traffic backups, which are busiest during commuting to work and school in the mornings. How would they solve this issue by adding twice as many students arriving before 8 a.m.?
Would officials need to revisit the 5-mile connector, to reduce traffic through the Clough Creek bottle-neck? Would that eliminate the 5-mile trail, which is widely used by many in the community and part of the overall trails network in the Township’s strategic plan?
Impact on Finances and School Resources
Our district already holds a debt on a bond approved in 2014, that still has a balance of over $90M. Buildings are typically held as collateral, with liens being held on the property, often requiring any monies earned from the sale of the asset to be fully applied to the remaining bond amount, which would prevent any use of funds to support any new buildings, development of existing buildings or, the purchase or lease of trailer classrooms. Has the board considered the impact of adding another bond to their plan to earn perceived lower operating costs?
Mercer currently holds roughly 700 students, including those with the most challenging needs. Often, students from other district schools on a 504/IEP are served at Mercer, where our most specialized support is provided. Will those resources be built at another school? Where would that money come from, if not another bond requiring community approval?
Additionally, AHS is a population of roughly 1100-1200, which exceeds the population of Mercer. The current building and square footage requirements for students K-6 are less than that for high-school-age students. Is there a plan to develop Mercer further? If so, how? Would we add to the building or expand the footprint with additional buildings? Where will funding for that come from, if not another bond levy, adding to our existing burden?
There are active construction sites in Anderson and planned for Newtown, which would bring additional families into the community, needing more schools and classrooms, not fewer. With schools already at 85-90% capacity, closing Mercer and re-districting those students completely ignores the growth this community is expected to see. Has the board, the administration, or the developer considered the need to serve those new students in their plan?
The stadium at Turpin, the gym at Turpin, and the fields at Turpin are not large enough to host a combined audience of spectators should the schools merge. In addition, fewer students would be able to participate in sports with a combined high school. What is the emotional and academic impact to the students with fewer in-school sports and activities they can participate in?
History Repeats Itself
The Forest Hills School District has been here before, and soundly rejected the ideas proposed for consolidation. Historical articles are available, and archived for your reference
Last night at the 8/17/2022 regular meeting of the Forest Hills School District Board of Education, Dr. Leslie Rasmussen proposed a motion to repeal the "Resolution to Create a Culture of Kindness and Equal Opportunity for All Students and Staff." The motion came after the board was presented with a change.org petition signed by just over 3,000 residents of the Forest Hills School District. In a surprise move, board member Katie Stewart — who originally voted AGAINST the resolution — refused to second the motion to repeal it. This has led to speculation that she is actually for the resolution that censors students and teachers from talking about diversity of all kinds in the classroom, essentially erasing the ability for students to get to know each other and create understanding and empathy.
Honesty for Ohio Education put out a statement early this morning condemning the lack of action at the board meeting. Advocate FHSD supports and highlights this statement. The resolution is no good for the students and the overall reputation of our beloved school dstrict.
It is clear that the Forest Hills community does not want the toxic ‘Culture of Kindness’ resolution poisoning their schools. This brazen act of disrespect for the students, families and educators by refusing to hold a vote against the resolution is yet another attempt by extremist elected officials to hold honest education hostage and weaponize race and identity,” says Cynthia Peeples, founding director of Honesty for Ohio Education.
Advocate Sarah Crable recently had a beautifully written opinion published by The Cincinnati Enquirer. To support her self-initiated efforts to achieve our shared goals, Advocate FHSD would like to highlight this op-ed titled "Forest Hills School Board members who support racist resolution must resign."
Sarah was born and raised in the Cincinnati area and spent 13 years of her schooling in the Forest Hills School District (FHSD). Sarah is currently an undergraduate student studying international relations at Stanford University.
FHSD is lucky to have Sarah Crable in its corner, and we are lucky to have this advocate in our group! Thank you Sarah!
If we are to have any hope of fostering a safe and constructive environment for all students in Forest Hills, Bibb, Hausfeld, and Jonas cannot remain in their positions. They have demonstrated a commitment to creating a culture of discrimination and hostility, of flagrant racism and ignorance. They cannot sit in positions that purport to act in the interest of student welfare while championing policies that will do such great harm to students of color and LGBTQ+ students. It is time for them to resign so the school district can get serious about prioritizing student needs — including the need for anti-racist education.
The Forest Hills Foundation for Education (FHFE) has supported the Forest Hills School District for over 14 years and provides funding for much needed critical initiatives that lead to the success of FHSD students. In a recent statement, the organization reassures the community that they will continue to provide their crucial services, while distancing themselves from the overall message of the "Culture of Kindness" resolution passed on June 22, 2022. As a community, we thank FHFE for their continued support of students and teachers in the district. Read their statement:
Forest Hills Foundation for Education Response to the FHSD Board of Education June 22, 2022 Resolution
As Board members and staff of the Foundation, we are inspired and guided by our Vision, Mission, and Values.
As a group of parents, community members, corporate and nonprofit leaders, we believe we need to understand others’ differences and backgrounds to be successful. We must be able to have civil conversations and debates. The classroom creates a safe environment for students to make mistakes, learn and grow. We continue to believe in and support research based best practices in education such as fostering effective learning environments, including activities which ensure the ability for students to be heard and have a sense of belonging.
In the coming school year, we will continue to consider grant requests from the Forest Hills School District, increase our grant allocation to our front-line educators through Teacher Grants, and add a new category of School Group Community Grants - working through our PTAs and PTOs to hear directly from parents and students. We believe this approach will lead to even better outcomes for every student to have the resources to reach their full potential. We will continue to be vigilant in ensuring that our grants support our Vision, Mission, and Values.
For over 14 years, the Foundation has supported the Forest Hills School District by funding critical initiatives for the success of our students - Nagel After School tutoring and student clubs; a Child Focus Therapist; STEM programs such as Destination Imagination, Esports and Robotics; and Teacher Grants. We continue to believe the most effective and efficient way to impact the largest number of students is by partnering with the Forest Hills School District.
Thank you for your trust in us to achieve the Foundation’s important and rewarding Mission to serve our students.
Welcome to AdvocateFHSD! We’re so happy to have you here. Strong public schools = strong communities. Here, we strive to engage and inform the FHSD community, and empower residents to be the best advocates for our students, teachers, administrators, and district.