Slowdown in state funding of new schools frustrating local districts

A pipeline of state money used to help build a dozen new schools in this region is slowing down and forcing some local districts to delay construction plans by years.

Franklin school officials said last week that their new school buildings will have to wait until 2027 for state funding from the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission.

And last year, Monroe Local Schools were told their project to build a new primary school was bumped back a year by the OFCC.

Both districts are plagued with increasingly costly, mid-20th century school buildings that are too old and expensive to repair or renovate without the assistance of state funding, said local school officials.

But the delay in state OFCC funding can’t be helped, said OFCC officials.

A jump in school districts winning voter approval of local school funding projects last year combined with uncertainty surrounding future state funding from Ohio’s pending biennium budget, which must be approved by June 30, has forced OFCC officials into a slowdown.

“It’s simply a matter of more demand than available funding,” said Rick Savors, spokesman for the OFCC.

“We have had more districts approve levies than we have seen in the past, and the funding that has been appropriated by the (Ohio) General Assembly as of this time has been committed to ongoing projects. The General Assembly is considering a commitment of $100 million in additional appropriations. If that money would become available, we will allocate it to eligible districts in order of legally mandated priority.”

In the last two decades the OFCC’s program transformed many Butler and Warren county school systems, whose relatively low business tax base made asking for homeowners to hike their taxes for new school buildings a usually failed effort.

Since 1999, the OFCC has channeled more than $702 million to a dozen local school districts to help them complete their new school construction projects. The level of state aid is largely determined by ranking criteria that favors districts with relatively low property values.

And since 1997, the OFCC has “opened 1,213 new or renovated school buildings and addressed the complete facilities needs of 285 of the state 659 public and vocational school districts,” Savors said.

To earn OFCC funding, local schools must first convince local voters to approve school construction bond tax hikes to cover the portion of the building projects not funded by the state.

In the tiny, largely low-income community of New Miami Schools in Butler County, officials built a new K-12 building at its single campus in 1999 with the OFCC funding accounting for 81 percent of the $12.7 million cost.

But in the more affluent Fairfield school system, OFCC funding for three new schools that opened in 2017 saw 26 percent of its $73.1 million costs covered by the state.

Without state funding, the three new Fairfield Schools – Central and Compass Elementary and the Fairfield Freshmen School – wouldn’t have happened, said Fairfield spokesperson Gina Gentry-Fletcher.

“The OFCC not only provided monetary support, but also guidance on the entire project, from the groundbreaking and demolition of the old facilities, to completion of all three of our new schools,” Gentry-Fletcher said.

“This project was a major undertaking for us, so we were extremely grateful for the OFCC’s expertise,” she said.

Middletown Board of Education President Chris Urso said the district’s new middle school and renovated high school, which opened last September, were essential for school system’s future, and using OFCC monies was the right thing to do.

“A central responsibility of any public school is to provide the richest opportunities possible for their young people while being wise stewards of public monies. OFCC funding has allowed Middletown Schools to successfully meet both vital objectives,” Urso said.

State funding, however, doesn’t mean total state control over new school building projects, said Middletown Schools spokeswoman Elizabeth Beadle.

“By working with the OFCC, Middletown Schools were able to fund the $95 million building project by using state funds and district funds; specifically, 64 percent from the state and 36 percent from locally funded dollars. The OFCC allowed Middletown Schools to decide how they wanted the buildings to look as long as they meet the state’s standards and size requirements,” said Beadle.

“The OFCC’s funding meant Middletown Schools could deliver two state-of-the-art schools and athletic facilities to its students and teachers without asking our taxpayers to either fund the entire project or choose (only) one school,” she said.

But Franklin City Schools officials said the OFCC’s current funding slowdown is frustrating.

“We’re used to getting curveballs from the state,” said board President Lori Raleigh after hearing a report from the district’s architectural firm last week.

Previously, the district was told it would be eligible for state funding in 2020 or 2021 to construct or renovate new buildings. That estimate is now 2027.

“This was a surprise to us,” Jahnigen said. “There has been so much success across the state with this program and the state said they have to slow down the financial distributions.”

While the delay is problematic, it could help Franklin.

Five years ago, the district would have been responsible for 75 percent of the local construction costs, according to Franklin City Schools Superintendent Michael Sander.

Sander said the district is now eligible for state funding for 56 percent, or about $67.2 million, of the estimated $120 million project to build new or renovated buildings. District officials said they would like to build two new elementary schools and a new high school and renovate the current high school on East Fourth Street into a junior high school.

Sander said the district has an enrollment of 2,995. It operates five small elementary schools, a junior high school, a high school in addition to the Hampton Bennett Early Childhood Center where the central office is located.

District officials are also exploring the Expedited Local Partnership Program, in which a building project could be done in phases with its local portion used upfront to begin or do smaller projects with the state providing its share at a later date when CFAP funding becomes available.

Sander said the ELPP program would allow the district to meet urgent needs and move forward on the building project. The district’s oldest building, Franklin Junior High School was built nearly 100 years ago.

If the board should decide at its May 20 meeting to go with the ELPP option, Sander said Franklin voters could see a ballot request as early as November 2020.

Also agitated are Monroe school officials, who were surprised last year when the OFCC pushed their funding application back a year. The Butler County district is dealing with enrollment overcrowding that shows no sign of abating.

“After significant work by our facility advisory team and board of education, our district was anticipating OFCC support and state funding for a project in November 2018 to help address our capacity issue,” said Monroe Superintendent Kathy Demers.

“However, the OFCC unexpectedly halted our plans in the spring of 2018. As a result, our facility capacity remains limited and has not been helped by this delay from the OFCC as our student population continues to grow,” said Demers.

“Our residents should know that the program established by the state has identified Monroe as a school district in need of support,” said Monroe Superintendent Kathy Demers. “Currently, the OFCC has calculated the state should provide 62 percent of the funds needed for the construction project.

“The state support for our facility master plan, designed to address the needs of our community and students, will only occur when the OFCC has the funds available.”

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