The Columbus Dispatch recently ran a story reminding us that the so-called Win Win Agreement between Columbus City Schools and most of the suburban school districts is coming up for its sexennial renewal this Spring.
I have discussed the Win Win Agreement at length in prior blog articles, so will distill it to simply this:
In exchange for the sharing of property tax revenues, Columbus City Schools agrees not to petition the State Board of Education to align the boundaries of Columbus City Schools to those of the City of Columbus.
In other words, without the Win Win Agreement, Columbus City Schools might petition the State Board of Education, the entity which sets school boundaries, to transfer some or all of the homes and commercial properties in the Hilliard School District that lie within the borders of the City of Columbus to Columbus City Schools. Apparently the belief among suburban school leaders is that the inclination of the State Board of Education to grant such a petition is sufficiently high to take the threat seriously.
Remember that these parcels have always been in the Hilliard School District. These parcels used to be part of various townships, mostly Norwich, but were annexed into the City of Columbus in the late 1970s and early 1980s by developers in order to gain access to water and sewer services. It caught both the developers and new homeowners by surprise when in the early 1980s, Columbus City Schools began threatening to petition the State Board of Education to realign its district boundaries with the Columbus municipal boundaries, as had been the custom in prior years. The developers thought their booming new homebuilding market was going to dry up, and folks who had already built homes in suburban school districts were horrified that their kids might be shifted to Columbus City Schools. I know. As one of the original homeowners in Golfview Woods, my wife and I were right in the middle of the battlefield.
Lawsuits, politics and general ugliness ensued – to the point that the Ohio General Assembly passed a law enacting a moratorium between the parties until a deal could be worked out. That deal is the Win Win Agreement, first signed in 1986, and up for renewal every six years. In the prior renewal years, all parties have continued their participation, except for Reynoldsburg. According to the Dispatch story, Groveport-Madison is giving consideration to not renewing its participation this year.
So where does that put the Hilliard Schools community today, twenty-four years later? Should we renew or not?
First, let's be clear what parcels we're talking about. The Win Win Agreement contains exhibits that spell out with precision the boundaries of the area that Columbus City Schools agrees will be left in the suburban districts. In the case of Hilliard City Schools, this represents roughly the large swath of land between I-270 and the Scioto River, and another couple of large hunks on the southern border of the district.
These areas include neighborhoods such as Golfview Woods, Highpoint, Westbrooke Park, Crosscreek Village, Thornapple Grove, Saddlebrook, Hilliard Green, Western Lakes, Scioto Trace, The Glen, River Place, and Bayside Commons Apartments.
It also includes substantial commercial properties, such as the Boehringer-Ingelheim-Roxanne Labs facility, the shopping centers on Hilliard-Rome Rd at Trabue/Renner, and the Buckeye railroad yard.
One way to make this decision is to look at the pure economics of the Win-Win Agreement today. According to data from our district's Finance and Operations departments, we currently have a few more than 7,000 kids in our school district who reside in the City of Columbus – about 46% of our student population. If it costs $11,000/yr to educate each of these kids, then the total cost to our district is $77 million.
The total amount of property tax we collect from residential, agricultural, commercial and industrial properties in the City of Columbus is $53 million/yr, or $24 million/yr less than it costs us to educate those kids. The $1 million/year in revenue sharing (I prefer to call it a ransom) we must pay to Columbus City Schools under the Agreement just adds to the spread – making the total economic impact about $25 million/yr.
Therefore, one way to look at this is that this $25 million/yr is the added cost all of us in the school district bear to keep these Columbus neighborhoods part of our school community. Realizing that $25 million is 16% of our total operating budget, this is a significant number.
So does that mean that if we bail out of the Win Win Agreement, we can save $25 million/yr and shed 7,000 kids from our school district?
First of all, even if that were true, we're not talking about 7,000 kids in abstraction here. These are our neighbors and friends - people who are every much as part of the Hilliard Schools community as the rest of us. They have paid the same property taxes, voted on the same levies (and for the same school board candidates!), been part of the PTOs and worked the concession stands during competitions. They aren't they, they are us!
Secondly, our state funding is based almost entirely on the number of kids we have enrolled in our school district. While it is true that the Transitional Aid Guarantee has kept our funding relatively constant as the number of kids has grown (another long conversation), and presumably works the same way if there is a decrease in the number of students, the wholesale transfer of 7,000 kids from one school district to another is bound to cause the State to reallocate funding from Hilliard Schools to Columbus Schools, even if it requires special legislation. The net is that we would not gain the full $25 million/yr. I could see our State funding of $60 million/yr cut in half, making this choice generate a net loss for our district!
But here's the factor that, I think, makes our continued participation in the Win-Win Agreement a no-brainer: as Treasurer Brian Wilson pointed out to me, it's not an all-or-nothing deal for Columbus City Schools. They could theoretically petition to have only the commercial, industrial, and high-value residential property reassigned to Columbus City Schools. The outcome could be that Hilliard Schools keeps nearly all of the 7,000 kids and loses most of the revenue.
That would be an unmitigated disaster.
This is a complex, multi-dimensional question. In addition to the recommendations of the Administration, I'm hoping the smart folks on the Audit & Accountability Committee will take on the challenge of examining the situation, and giving their advice to the School Board as well.
And certainly, the thoughts, analysis and opinions of fellow community members are much appreciated!