London City Schools officials hope to use state money to build a new middle school. Does this plan break an eight-year-old levy campaign promise? Two former school administrators say it does, that the state funds should be used to pay down the debt of previous building projects.
Could the promise have been kept in the first place? Current school officials say “no,” that it was based on incorrect information.
These issues were raised at the June 16 London school board meeting. At the heart of the matter is interpretation of state law regarding Ohio School Facilities Commis-sion (OSFC) projects.
The Original Plan
At the meeting, Dr. Bob Smith talked about the bond issue that voters passed in May 2001. Smith, a London resident, was assistant superintendent of London City Schools at that time.
The purpose of the levy was to raise $30 million over 28 years to build a new elementary school and renovate the high school. It was part of an agreement the district made with the Ohio School Facilities Commission (OSFC). The agreement was that the state would pay for 46 percent of facility construction costs in 2009; the school district had to cover the other 54 percent with local money.
During the 2000 and 2001 levy campaigns, voters were told that by passing the bond issue, they would be fronting 100 percent of the cost of building the new elementary and renovating the high school, Smith said. Then, when the state’s share became available in 2009, the “state reimbursement funds would be used to amortize those bonds…in other words, reduce their property taxes,” Smith said. The original proposal did not mention using the state funds to build a new middle school, he said.
“Without a vote of the people, are you now planning to use those monies that were promised to the property taxpayers for paying 100 percent on the new elementary to subsidize the building of a new middle school?” Smith asked the board.
Current Interpretation of State Law
OSFC representative Lisa Laney attended the June 16 meeting. She explained that the state’s share isn’t 46 percent of the $30 million project to build a new elementary and renovate the high school; it is 46 percent of London City Schools’ overall master plan for all buildings in the district. The $30 million project is one part of that long-term master plan and represents London’s end of the deal, 54 percent, she said.
The state’s share of facility costs is not applied to the locally funded project, she said.
“That was a common misconception among a lot of superintendents (and other school officials) at that time,” Laney commented.
Beyond the state’s 46 percent share of the whole master building plan, the only possible state reimbursement toward the locally funded project is for any local money the district spent above its 54 percent local share.
“We were one of the first districts in the ELPP (Expedited Local Partnership Program)…I think we misinterpreted what we could do,” said Vici Geer, the only person on the school board now who was on the board when taxpayers passed the bond issue in 2001.
“Our layperson interpretation—that means everyone involved locally, including me, who knew about the Ohio Revised Code statute—was wrong,” said board president Nancy Smith after the meeting.
Smith was not on the school board when the bond issue passed but she was a precinct captain on the levy campaign committee.
“Hindsight is 20/20. We know now it wasn’t right. We didn’t know it then,” she said.
Background on OSFC and ELPP
OSFC was created in 1997 to oversee the rebuilding of Ohio’s inadequate public school facilities. Each year, the Ohio Department of Education ranks the state’s school districts from one to 614 based on per-pupil valuation. The poorest districts are the first to get OSFC funding.
London City Schools falls roughly in the middle of the rankings. The district was slated to become eligible for OSFC funds in 2009.
The state introduced the Expedited Local Partnership Program (ELPP) in 1999 and made it a permanent part of state law in 2000. ELPP allows districts stuck in the middle of the list to move ahead with construction projects using local funds while waiting for state money to become available.
In late 2000, London school officials opted to enroll in the ELPP program so that work could begin as soon as possible on a new elementary school. The old one dates back to the late 1800s.
Last year, when London City Schools learned that it would indeed be eligible for the state’s share of facility funding in 2009, school officials began looking into what they needed to do to be ready for it.
The leadership has changed since the district entered into ELPP. Eight years ago, Tom Coyne was superintendent, Smith was assistant superintendent, and Judy Geers was treasurer. They are no longer with the district. Steve Allen is superintendent and Britt Lewis is treasurer.
“When we got into it, we realized it wasn’t what (the former administrators and board members) originally thought,” Allen said. “It became obvious that what they campaigned on was a mistake, a misunderstanding.”
Allen and Lewis learned from OSFC that the state’s share was to be used for the rest of the school district’s master plan. So, the district formed a facilities review committee last year to revisit and update the master plan. The committee recom-mended that the board abandon the down-town campus and build a new middle school across from the high school on Route 38, as well as make further additions to the elementary and high school. The plan is contingent on a land swap with the City of London.
Earlier this year, Allen received notice from OSFC that the district could get on the “fast track” to receive the state money in November, a year earlier than expected. Part of the procedure requires OSFC to revisit the district to reassess the status of all of the school facilities. That assessment was done on June 13, he said. He expects to receive the results by July 1.
The results will include OSFC’s figures for the cost of the entire master plan as it stands now and a determination as to whether the existing middle school should be renovated or a new one should be built.
“The good thing is we will have far better schools,” Allen said.
In a telephone interview on June 17, Tom Coyne stood by his original under-standing of OSFC programs, including ELPP. Coyne was superintendent of London City Schools when the bond issue was passed in 2001. He previously had appeared before the Senate committee to get ELPP passed into law.
“The idea of ELPP was you pay up front and the state reimburses you at the end of the game,” said Coyne. This understanding and the subsequent bond issue campaign was based on information from OSFC, school attorneys, and construction man-agers associated with the program, he said.
“If they’re saying you can’t do that now, they weren’t saying it back then,” Coyne commented.
Rick Savors, OSFC spokesperson, said in an interview on June 17 that ELPP always has been structured to represent the local district’s share of the bigger master plan, but admitted it was confusing.
“London was in the program eight years ago. At that particular point in time, there was a distinct amount of confusion for a lot of people on how ELPP worked,” he said.
“There were companies not communi-cating the correct information… There is a good possibility that we (OSFC) didn’t communicate as well as we could…There’s probably enough blame to go around on every side.”
Savors said he doesn’t know how the misinterpretation happened with London City Schools specifically, but he said the bottom line is that the law hasn’t changed. To get state money for building costs, a school district must follow through on a master plan that addresses the needs of all of the district’s students and buildings, he said.
For more information about the Ohio School Facilities Commission, go to www.osfc.state.oh.us/.