By Joy Hampton
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — A long debate over special use zoning revealed a hole in Norman’s city code Tuesday night at the Norman City Council meeting.
Eventually, special use was granted for a private school in a 7-2 vote. with Council members Tom Kovach and Greg Heiple voting against.
Bright Start Early Education Center applied for special use zoning for a private school/early education center in the I-1, Light Industrial District at 2795 Broce Drive.
City code allows schools to have special use in light industrial areas but does not allow child care centers the special use designation. Why schools are allowed the special use and child care centers are not was not addressed.
What was addressed is whether Bright Start is a private school and early education center or a child care center.
The city’s definition of a school requires that it be regulated by the state. Private schools are not regulated by the state — their accreditation comes through national organizations. Bright Start is accredited, as are other private schools in Norman, including Community Christian School, which is located nearby.
“We have a curriculum for all ages,” attorney Stephen McCaleb said, representing the school. “We’re somewhat similar to Pumpkin Shell, which you recognize as a school.”
Bright Start presented a revised site plan, based on input from the planning commission. The school moved the location of the playground and expanded the parking lot.
Several people spoke in favor of Bright Start. Austin Childers said he is dyslexic and couldn’t read.
“Norman Public Schools failed to teach me. This is the only place that took me and taught me to read,” Childers said.
Justin Cervi spoke in opposition. He said CCS has a system and people out there directing traffic. He doesn’t believe a small operation like Bright Start will be able to do that.
“It’s really a concern of ours, for the safety of everyone,” Cervi said. “I don’t think this is the place for a daycare.”
Bright Start’s building has the capacity for 120 children, ranging from infant to pre-school age children, according to city staff reports. The school offers before and after school care for elementary school children, as well as transportation to and from their schools.
The facility will operate from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, with various drop-off and pick-up times. Bright Start also offers summer camps, field trips and outdoor physical activities. Staff reports that there will be eight to 10 employees for the facility.
Teachers are trained and certified.
“My son comes home every day and tells me something new that he learned,” one mother said. “My kids are happy to be there.”
After several questions regarding parking, traffic and other safety concerns, most council members made positive comments about the proposed school.
“I’m wholeheartedly supporting this,” Council member Jim Griffith said. “The applicant has done everything in its power to make this a desirable location. I don’t see any reason why we as a council can’t grant a special use.”
Council member Chad William’s said there are facilities that teach gymnastics, dance and tumbling in the area and those facilities have classes during the day in the summer.
“To me, they qualify as a school, and I feel comfortable with making that call,” Williams said.
Council member Tom Kovach said his objections were not a reflection on quality.
“We are not deciding whether this is a good school or bad school,” Kovach said. “I do find it troubling that there are businesses nearby that wouldn’t be the best location next door to a school. ... It’s just not a good fit.”
Council member Lynne Miller disagreed.
“I think that this school by definition is a school,” Miller said. “That area is a light industrial area, however, it’s rather unusual. It houses many programs for children. ... I think it’s safe for those children, and I think it’s safe for these children.”
In other city business, budget discussions of capital projects continued. City staff addressed questions about several projects, including the McKinley Elementary School circulation project with $25,000 designated as a match with Norman Public Schools to asphalt a rough-hewn gravel lane along the west side of the school.
Master Police Officer Teddy Wilson said the department administers crime prevention through environmental design, which helped lead to this proposal. An incident with a mother and daughter bicycling brought the danger of the current drop-off and pick-up at McKinley to a head. A vehicle trying to pass parked cars at the school almost hit the cyclists.
“That’s why we stepped up to help because it is a problem for us,” Wilson said. “You can’t get a fire truck through there.”
Traffic backing up is mostly a problem in the afternoon when kids are picked up. The new plan will take cars off Flood Avenue and direct them to enter from Cruce Drive. The asphalt along the west will run parallel to Pickard Drive and will circumvent the trees so they will not have to be removed.
The council agreed to keep the project in the budget.
The council also agreed to talk to the Norman Convention and Visitors Bureau about possibly sharing the cost of wayfinding signs, a one-time $80,000 investment. The city will maintain the signs but is hoping for help with the initial investment.
The Reaves Park road project was discussed with a lower-cost option proposed for cement roads that are in failure. Rather than the $250,000 project originally proposed, the roads will be repaired with asphalt overlay at a cost of $50,000. The repair should last about five years, city staff said.
The possibility of additional sidewalk funding also was discussed. The area between 24th Avenue Northwest and 12th Avenue Northeast along the south side of Robinson Street was the area of most concern.
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