Friday, April 27, 2007

Suckered Again?

At its meeting last week, the Hilliard School Board authorized the signing of easement agreements between the District and Homewood Homes. I asked for a copy of the agreements, and picked them up today.

I have scanned the agreement, and have it posted on the website if you want to download it. Unfortunately it is a PDF of scanned images, so the file is large (8 meg).

Here's what I get out of the agreement:
  • Homewood grants an easement for water and 'temporary' sewer lines to HCSD, for which HCSD pays $10 (ten) dollars. The easement generally follows the north property line of the Homewood property, which is shared with developer George Sicaras, from Alton-Darby Rd just south of Pinefield Dr.
  • If Homewood annexes their land to a municipality (presumably Hilliard), the HCSD agrees to sign over the easement to municipality.
  • Homewood is permitted to tap into the water line and extend it without paying HCSD anything (Section 1.4). If either party causes the quality of the water service to be degraded, that party will be responsible for enlarging the water lines as necessary to restore the original quality of service.

    It would be easy to see this as a protection for the HCSD: i.e. if Homewood puts a pile of houses on the line and the pressure drops, Homewood would be responsible for putting in larger water lines to fix the problem. But remember that the HCSD intends to build a middle school on this property at some point. It is entirely possible for the timing to work out such that the construction of a middle school is the causative element requiring the installation of an upgraded water line – meaning HCSD would have to pay for it.
  • If another sewer line is installed in the area, and it would be "economically feasible" for the HCSD to attach to it instead of the temporary sewer lines, the HCSD agrees to do so without unreasonable delay, releasing the temporary sewer line easement back to Homewood, and bearing the cost of removing the temporary sewer line.

    People in our community often believe it is access to the water system which is the limiting factor to growth. That’s not always true, and in the western part of our school district, it is the sewer system capacity which controls growth. I suspect that this clause guarantees that when the City of Columbus is weighing the economic viability of running a larger sewer trunk into western Franklin County, the developers will already have the commitment of the HCSD to abandon their ‘temporary’ facilities and shift to the new one.
  • If Homewood chooses to annex its land into the City of Hilliard, the HCSD agrees to annex its parcels into the City of Hilliard as well.
Why would Homewood care if the school property is annexed into Hilliard? I can think of a few reasons:
  • Mayor Schonhardt wants Bradley High School, Brown Elementary, and the new middle school (if and when it is built) inside the city limits of Hilliard so that Hilliard can collect income taxes from the faculty and staff of those schools. This is an important source of income for the City of Hilliard, and I can understand the Mayor wanting to capture it. But this should be an understanding between City Hall and the School District, not part of an agreement with a third party. Something fishy here.
  • This causes the boundaries of the City of Hilliard to be extended to the western limit of the water/sewer services agreement between Columbus and Hilliard, creating an annexation path to land owned by a number of speculators and developers. By gaining this option, Mayor Schonhardt and the landowners change the dynamics of power in the Big Darby Accord (which is why I think the School Board was maneuvered into buying this piece of property in the first place).
  • The current annexation law says that if 100% of the landowners support an annexation (which HCSD would be required to do by this contract), then up to 500 acres can be annexed without requiring any permission or negotiation with the township, and the County Commissioners must approve the annexation. Interestingly, the total amount of land owned by the HCSD and these speculators and developers is almost exactly 500 acres. Coincidence?

The School Board has been played again.

At the February 2006 School Board meeting when the resolution was passed to purchase the Emmelhainz property for the third high school, I stood and asked the question: “how are you going to get water to that site?” It was clear to me then that the Board had been maneuvered into purchasing the Emmelhainz property, and that its location relative to the Homewood land raised many questions as to the role of Homewood in this selection.

The School Board had the opportunity to hold the upper hand. The contract they signed for the purchase of the Emmelhainz property, allowed them to escape the deal if all the contingencies were not satisfied, which included a satisfactory solution for water/sewer service. The School Board could have told Homewood that Homewood would have to participate in the cost of the water line, or the School Board would terminate the purchase agreement and go look for another piece of land.
But the School Board was desperate to find a site and get construction underway and so, for reasons I do not understand, waived the relevant contingencies and proceeded to closing on the land. That immediately gave all the negotiating power to Homewood, who owned the path to the water for the piece of land the School Board had purchased. So now the School District (that means us!) is going to pay over $800,000 to put in the water line and Homewood is going to get to tap off of it for free when they start building houses.

I need your help in sending a message to our Board that we will no longer tolerate seeing our school system used as a pawn by powerful corporations and the politicians they influence. Here’s a list of the Board members and their contact info.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Taxes to the Left of me, Taxes to the Right

The officials of the Hilliard City Schools are sending a team of solicitors into our community with the mission of collecting at least 15,000 of the 402,000 signatures required statewide to put a proposed School Funding Amendment on the November ballot. They will tell you that this amendment will simultaneously lower your property taxes and generate more money for the schools. That statement is true, but not the whole truth.

I am confident that this amendment will cost the residents of the Hilliard City School District more money in taxes, and will return less as our money is reallocated to other school districts across the state. To keep our school systems funded at current levels, I believe that we will need to continue to pass local levies, and with this amendment, these will be of a kind that automatically increases our tax bills with our property values.

Local school property taxes will be not eliminated with this amendment. The minimum rate required by the State of Ohio will be lowered slightly from 23 mills to 20 mills. However, the amendment would simultaneously remove the protections that prevent your property tax bill from increasing with the value of your home. District Treasurer Brian Wilson estimates that this change will cause our collective annual local property taxes to INCREASE by $7.2 million, and your property taxes could go up every time your home is reassessed by the County Auditor – automatically.

Supporters of this amendment will tell you that it shifts the burden of funding schools from property taxes to the State of Ohio. What a strange thing to say. Where does the State of Ohio get its money after all? Does a dollar of one kind of tax cost us less than a dollar of another?

Ask the person soliciting your signature how much your total tax burden will change with this amendment. They won’t know. The official website for the amendment,, has a graph comparing the current funding model to the one proposed. It not only shows the new funding requirements being larger than today, it leaves it ambiguous how much larger it will be.

In the current funding system, we get to decide how much we are willing to tax ourselves to support our schools. Every so often, our School Board is required to come before all of us and explain why more money is needed. We debate and argue, and eventually reach a decision. But it is our decision.

In the proposed system, funding is determined by the State Board of Education. There’s a good chance that the amount they allocate to us from their pot of money will leave us short of what we need to operate our schools in the manner our community is accustomed. After all, their objective is to get more money to the urban and rural districts, not suburban districts like ours. In fact, the amendment contains language allowing the State the cap the funding to if the new formula allocates an amount which would "exceed the amount necessary." [see paragraph (E)(1)]

The amendment anticipates this situation. Local school districts will retain the authority to pass property tax levies to fund their district to a level higher than the State provides. However, local property taxes would no longer be protected from increases due to reassessments. Nor would these additional local property taxes include the much-touted exemption for senior and disabled citizens.

In our district, 85% of the operating budget goes to pay for the salaries and benefits of the administrators, faculty and staff. This should not be surprising – a school system is a professional services organization. If we want to have great schools, we need to have great people on the team. And we need to understand that the cost of this team increases every year as the employees work their way up the pay scale. These increases are automatic, written into the collective bargaining agreements negotiated by the unions representing most of the faculty and staff. Since salaries and benefits increase automatically every year, the educators want a funding system that automatically collects more taxes each year, without having to ask for our approval.

There is no right or wrong choice in this matter. The only bad thing you can do is make your decision without investing the time to understand how the amendment will work. You are invited to visit as a starting point.

Paul Lambert
Brown Twp

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Next Levy: Alarming Estimates

If you have followed this blog, you know that I have been asking the School Board (during the public comments time of the Board meetings) to give the community an estimate of what the next levy is going to cost us. They have flatly ignored my request.

Treasurer Brian Wilson in his Five Year Forecast reports that the funding shortfall in FY2011 will be in excess of $37 million annually, which is the same thing as saying our community will need to come up with a combination of spending cuts and new tax revenue to cover this. We're not going to get any help from the State of Ohio on this, they have frozen the State support at current levels.

So how many mills does it take to raise say $40 million of new revenue in our community? I asked that very question of the County Auditor's office (who has always been very helpful in answering my questions), and their answer was:

IT TAKES 16.66 mills to raise $40 million per year!!!!!!!

Okay, so why did I write this with so much emphasis? Take a look at what happened to your tax bill with the last levy, which was 3.95 mills. This next levy could be more than 4 times that amount!

Let's look at it another way. The current effective millage rate in our district is 42.11 mills. To add 16.66 mills would be a 40% increase, if I'm doing all the math correctly. Here's how this would hit me: Our current school tax burden is $4,581 per year. A 40% increase would add $1,832 to my taxes, for a total of $6,413.

That's going to hurt. Ten years ago, in 1997, our total property tax bill was about $5,000, including all the other township and county taxes we pay. This year it will be $7,200. With this new school tax, it could become $9,000 per year.

But you know, it's not so much that the taxes are going up, it's that the School Board refuses to alert the community to this problem. I think it has something to do with Mayor Schonhardt being up for re-election (unopposed) this November, as well as three Hilliard City Council seats and two Board of Education seats.

Please help me demand that the School Board start talking about this levy right away!

Redistricting Completed

All in all, the redistricting effort appears to have been completed successfully. The Board deliberated in public for six hours, ending the public part of the meeting at 1:30am. While there were much fewer people at the beginning of the meeting than I expected (no more than 100), perhaps half stayed to the bitter end. It was clear to me after a couple of hours that the Board was honoring the requirement to deliberate in public, but after admonishing them at the prior meeting to be sure that they obeyed the Ohio Sunshine Laws, it would have been very disrespectful of me to have left before they finished their task.

Not that there weren't things to be annoyed about. The Ballantrae contingent also stayed to the bitter end to ensure that their neighborhood remained assigned to Davidson High School. They seem to have some problem with Darby, apparently thinking it is a school riddled with undesirable elements, according to the comments they wrote on district website.

I had one Ballantrae resident tell me that the Hilliard City School District should just let Ballantrae shift to Dublin City Schools, as they are more of a Dublin community that a Hilliard one anyway -- whatever that means. I said that was okay with me as long as they keep paying for the construction levies associated with Washington Elementary and their share of the rest of the schools their kids attend now. Or we could just sell Washington Elementary to Dublin Schools.

Well done Board. I have one suggestion however: with the skills you have in your IT department, it was a shame for you guys to sit in this meeting with PCs in front of (most of) you and yet be playing with numbers by hand using notebooks of printed reports that (most of) you brought to the meeting. It would have been no more than a few day's work for one of the district IT staffers to build you a spreadsheet that would have allowed you to see the effects of your changes in real time. You could have ever projected charts on the screen for the whole audience to see. If you want to see such a spreadsheet, let me know -- I built one last fall for the redistricting team and let the IT folks review it. They really should have equipped you better.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Wrong Side of the Tracks, Part III

This is the third in a series of posts concerning the ethnic imbalance in our schools. The first of the series can be found here.

Additional community comments about the redistricting, copied without corrections:
  • I could send my children to the district seven miles to the south and have them educated with the same types of students that will be at Crossing with the new proposal for much less.
  • Under Option A for the redistricting for the high school, Ballantrae residents would be sent to Darby High School, from what I understand. I am very much AGAINST this proposal. One of the reasons I chose Ballantrae was for Davidson High School. Many, many other Ballantrae residents feel the same way.
  • I am writing to voice my disapproval of where the Hyde Park subdivision is slated to go to school next year. It is a school with test scores that have dropped in every major area except 4th grade writing for the past three years. I am afraid that not only would I move to another area of Hilliard with better schools, I would have a fairly difficult time selling it due to the elementary school to which children in that area would go.
  • Here is my concern: I left the Columbus Public School District to pay more taxes for better schools. I live in the city of Hilliard proper and now we are going to be redistricted to an elementary school with continually declining test scores and a population taht reminds me a great deal of Columbus/Southwestern City Schools. ( live in Hyde Park, being sent to Crossing on all three maps). I am very disappointed in the way this is turing out. Hyde Park has continuously supported school issues and bond issues and this is the way we are considered?
  • I strongly encourage the Board of Education members to carefully consider the drawing of the zones that are in the central and southern portions of our district to distribute the share of rentals throughout Scioto Darby, JW Reason, Beacon, Hilliard Crossing, Darby Creek, etc. so that they are not concentrated in two or three schools
  • Our major concern as residents of Ballantrae, is the major home investment we made for our children to attend Davidson High School. The property taxes are huge ($10,000 - $20,000 per year). We have been willing to pay and vote "yes" on school issues twice, since we moved here. This has increased our taxes each time. The possibility of being moved to Darby is not acceptable for many reasons. 1.) Many Ballantrae residents formerly resided in Carrington, Britton Farms, and River Landings subdivisions. These are not new Hilliard residents. We are residents who have been in the district for many years. The criteria of "new neighborhood" should not apply here if the board is really being fair. 2.)The construction on Cosgray and Hayden Run will make the next 4 years a nightmare for travel to Darby and Heritage. We have already suffered through the Avery Rd./Hayden Run Rd. 9 month shutdown. This would continue the nightmare for our neighborhood. 3.) The word is out that the board will vote on Option A. The "people in the know" as we shall call them, will only fuel the argument that the board and district adminstrators really are not listening to community input. Rather they are only going through the motions, if Option A is indeed the one accepted by the board. The impact of this decision on the school community will be huge. Looking to the north in Dublin, their school board understands that you don't bite the community hand that feeds you. Their new school openings offered some choice and gave voters(parents) a true measure of respect and value. This is not the case with this situation. The lack of respect will be interpreted as " the board and adminstrators really don't care what you think or want - just keep paying". Unfortunately, this will ultimately alienate the people who have been your biggest backers.(i.e. percentage of yes votes in the last 2 school campaigns). Politically, for the long term financial stability of the district, this would not be a prudent decision. This will turn a 80% - 20% yes vote into a 80 - 20 no vote on future voting. With school issues running close, that could and would change the outcome of those school issues. People in Ballantrae vote. People in Ballantrae will opt for different choices for their children's education outside the Hilliard City Schools. People in Ballantrae will not sit quietly and let the board dictate a change that the people (voters, parents) are vehemently against. The neighborhood emails are flying, the community is organizing. What a shame that a short sighted decision could turn into a long term political nightmare for the district. One that has enjoyed exceptional support from this neighborhood. 4.) While understanding that redistricting is never easy, this is not the same old Hilliard of even 10 years ago. Parents and community expect a different level of service and accountability for their tax dollars.If you want high levels of support from the community, there must be a high level of respect from the board and district adminstrators. If that happens, our children can be the true beneficiaries.
  • Sending the students from Hyde Park to Crossing would be a double whammy for those of us who live here. Not only would it take us away from the children we see everyday, it would send us to a school that has below-district averages on the state standardized tests. In the past, this development has supported the schools in every issue it has faced. I am afraid that if one of the primary plans are used that send our kids to Crossing, this support will be lost. Who would buy a house in an area with subpar schools? There is no doubt that our house values would decrease.
  • Our family and many neighbors are adamantly opposed to "Option A" for High School/Middle School. My wife and I are proud Hilliard graduates. Our family recently moved back to the Columbus area after being in Baltimore, MD for many years. We had many friends & co-workers tell us to avoid Hilliard City Schools because the district had changed for the worse over the past several years. We looked at Arlington and Dublin schools, but we decided on Hilliard City Schools and the Ballantrae subdivision, mainly due to the new elementary school (Washington) and the notion our children would go to Davidson H.S. I can't even begin to imagine our children riding in their bus past Davidson H.S. everyday to get to Darby H.S. I would rather send my children to private school and vote no on all future Hilliard school levies.
  • Some of the redistricting plans have MANY condo and apt. areas slated for the same Crossing may be 8/10 from apt. and condo.I KNOW that this pop. of students is more transient and generally have parents of lower educational/income levels.Is it really the best choice for them to be mostly put in the same school??Is it the best choice for all of Hilliard?Spread out that population to several schools! That is what is in the best interest of all the children of Hilliard!
  • I sincerely hope that the Hilliard Board of Education will insure that all three Hilliard high schools will be treated fairly in regard to socioeconmically disadvanteged families. Please insure that lower income housing is spread equally among the three high schools. We already have a community perspective with the current two high schools as the "haves" and "have nots." Please do your best to distribute the concerns evenly. Research shows that the students who do the best academically come from families with higher socail economic status. While there are many good things that come from diversity, there are concerns as well. The concerns are for each and every student to receive the best education possible, staff understanding/support/development and community education. Please divide the load to help prevent many negative things that will occur if you do not.
  • I had hoped that the board would use redisticting as an opportunity to create diversity in all our schools. I believe that exposure to diversity creates life-long lessons that academics can not, but I believe that it is also unfair for schools with significant cultural and socio-economic diversity to be held to the same standards without additional assistance for our teachers.

It is encouraging for me to see some community members expressing the belief that we need to use the opportunity of this redistricting effort to rebalance so that each individual school has a socioeconomic profile which matches the community at large. I also respect the views of those who say they don't want to see this kind of rebalancing take place.

But I have little respect for those who want to define some schools as enclaves for the affluent and predominately white neighborhoods in the district, but mask their true feelings by making the discussion be about traffic and transportation issues.

Next post on this subject