Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Secession from the District: The Ballantrae Question

I've been asked twice this week about the conversation going on in Ballantrae in regard to leaving the Hilliard School District, supposedly to become part of Dublin City Schools.

Much of what I've heard seems to based on information I believe to be incorrect. Nor am I clear what the motivations are for pursuing this action, although my experience is that they are rarely matters of abstract philosophy. In other words, I suspect that there are a few folks who feel they have much to gain for personal reasons they have not fully disclosed, and are attempting to invoke other arguments to futher their private goals - even when those arguments have no merit.

For example, the main assertion seems to be that because of the annexation of a large tract of land roughly bounded by Cosgray, Hayden Run and Avery Rds into the City of Columbus, and the simultaneous transfer of that same land into Columbus City Schools, a situation has been created that somehow puts Ballantrae into jeopardy of being 'taken over' by Columbus City School as well.

This is hogwash.

The reason given for this supposed exposure is, as I understand it, that it is against Ohio law for school districts to have 'islands' (non-contiguous) parcels of land included their territories. Indeed ORC 3311.06 states precisely that, but with some exceptions. Those exceptions were written into the law specifically to deal with a unique situation that exists in Franklin County - the so-called "Win-Win Agreement."

A review of history is required.

Many decades ago, the City of Columbus was given exclusive control of the regional water/sewer system. In that role, the City of Columbus has negotiated water/sewer service agreements with the surrounding incorporated municipalities. Those agreements include clear descriptions of the extent to which a suburb can annex land and be allowed to extend water/sewer service. It also prohibits the extension of the water/sewer service into unincorporated parcels. In other words, a developer is required to have his land annexed into whichever city has the rights to extend the water/sewer system to that particular parcel. This will come back into play later in the story.

Columbus was very shrewd in the way it drew up this contract, for it preserves "growth corridors" between each suburb that allow the City of Columbus to expand to areas beyond the suburbs. For example, the western limit of the expansion area defined for the City of Hilliard is along a line which runs roughly due north from Bradley High School. Therefore, any land west of this line can be annexed only into the City of Columbus.

Now let's talk about the "Win-Win Agreement."  Its history goes like this:
  • In 1977, in the case of Penick v. Columbus Board of Educationthe Federal Court ruled that busing be implemented in Columbus City Schools in order to racially integrate the schools. That led to a wave of "White Flight" to the suburbs.
  • This "White Flight" created a demand for suburban housing that could be satisfied only by the construction of thousands upon thousands of new homes. It launched a boom for developers and home builders unlike any ever before seen in our region.
  • Because all these new developments would have to be served by the regional water/sewer system, which is controlled by the City of Columbus, the fastest and most economical way to extend the water/sewer service system was to find pockets of land at the frontier of the existing water/sewer line network, but within suburban school district boundaries. In our community, among the first of these developments were The Glen and Golfview Woods. Both were outside the expansion zone assigned to the City of Hilliard, but were adjacent to the City of Columbus, and so were annexed by the developers into the City of Columbus, while remaining in the Hilliard School District.
  • The Columbus School Board decided that the "White Flight" was a bad thing for Columbus City Schools, and it sought to have the State Board of Education - the state agency which sets school district boundaries - declare that municipal and school district boundaries should be made the same. The Columbus School Board had compelling arguments: a) the whole reason for the Penick ruling - desegregation - was being circumvented; and, b) Columbus school buildings were emptying out (e.g. Central High School, which is now COSI), while the suburbs were building schools like crazy, costing the taxpayers a ton of money.
  • A time of great angst followed. Residents of neighborhoods like Golfview Woods (where my wife and I lived at the time) feared that they would be reassigned to Columbus Schools and their kids bused to schools far away because of the desegregation ruling. The demand for suburban housing dropped dramatically as potential homebuyers stood on the sidelines waiting to see how this situation would work out. This greatly concerned the developers, who have always carried a great deal of political weight in our region.
After a period of fighting spanning several years in both the courts and the Statehouse, the Win-Win Agreement was developed. Its key points are these:
  • Any developed land in the City of Columbus but a suburban school district would be allowed to remain in the suburban school district as long as the suburban school district continues to make annual 'revenue sharing' payments to Columbus City Schools. I prefer to call these ransom payments, and ours is now $1 million/yr.
  • Any undeveloped land annexed into a suburb under the terms of the water/services agreement would remain in the school district in which it was part prior to the annexation. This is the one that applies to Ballantrae.
  • Any undeveloped land which is thereafter annexed into the City of Columbus is automatically shifted to Columbus City Schools.  This is the clause which causes all those islands in the Columbus School District to develop, such as the big Dominion development along Hayden Run Rd between Cosgray and Avery.
Because of the existence of the Win-Win Agreement, certain exceptions were written into ORC 3311.06, the law governing the transfer of school district territory:
(C)(2) When the territory so annexed to a city or village comprises part but not all of the territory of a school district, the said territory becomes part of the city school district or the school district of which the village is a part only upon approval by the state board of education, unless the district in which the territory is located is a party to an annexation agreement with the city school district.
The Win-Win Agreement is an example (perhaps the only example) of such an annexation agreement. ORC 3311.06 goes on to say:
(F) An urban school district may enter into a comprehensive agreement with one or more school districts under which transfers of territory annexed by the city served by the urban school district after September 24, 1986, shall be governed by the agreement.
So, as long as the Win-Win Agreement stays in force, it supersedes the Ohio law in regard to school district boundaries and annexations.  What is the risk of the Win-Win Agreement not remaining in force?

The risk isn't zero. But the situation is much more complicated than it was in the 1980s, when most of the land outside I-270 was undeveloped and unincorporated. Since then, the City of Columbus has indicated that it's not all that eager to expand its frontiers for residential development, which requires it to take on the attendant responsibilities of providing police, fire, garbage collection, street repair, and all the other expected city services.

But that's not exactly the question regarding Ballantrae, which was annexed into the City of Dublin before the first house was built. I think the question is whether, in the absence of an "annexation agreement" such as the Win-Win Agreement, Columbus City Schools - a wholly separate political entity than the City of Columbus - would be likely to make a push to have Ballantrae transferred to Columbus City Schools?

I don't think that's at all likely. The law seems to be written to favor having school districts aligned with municipalities, and so if the Win-Win Agreement terminates and Ballantrae has been made an island of the Hilliard school district because of annexations by the City of Columbus, the outcome would surely be to cure the problem by transferring Ballantrae to Dublin City Schools.

So what's the rush?  Again, as a layman, I think the arguments asserting that the residents of Ballantrae must immediately take matters into their own hands before something bad happens - like an involuntary transfer to Columbus City Schools - are extremely weak. 

I suspect there is some other underlying motivation which is driving the instigators of this conversation. I would encourage the residents of Ballantrae to ferret that out before heading down the complex (ie expensive) process of initiating a transfer to another school district.

NOTE: please continue your reading to the followup article on this subject, found here.


  1. I can't really blame them. At this point, I am thinking I should have bought in Dublin too. I need to be in my house until February 2012 to avoid paying back the $8k home-buyers' credit. I can almost guarantee I will list my house this fall if the levy passes.

  2. If lowering their property taxes is the motivation of the instigators, I understand, but I wish they would say so. It might get some people engaged and thinking in our district.

    As of right now, the annual property taxes on a $400,000 house in Ballantrae is $10,074 (Hilliard CSD/City of Dublin). For a $400,000 house in the Dublin CSD, City of Dublin, the taxes would be $10,037. At first blush, it doesn't seem like there's much of a payback for the effort and expense.

    Of course, our 6.9 mill levy - if passed this year - will add $850/yr to the tax load on a $400,000 house in the Hilliard School District, while it looks like Dublin can wait until 2013 to put its next levy on the ballot.

    If we don't get our rate of spending growth under control, we'll be on the ballot again in 2013, and 6.9 mills won't be enough.

  3. How do we know that the motivation isn't that they simply want to be in the Dublin school district rather than the Hilliard school district? I'm afraid I don't know anything specific about the conversations you've been asked to comment on, but this seems like a reasonable place to start.

  4. Not sure I know who the "they" are in this case, as not all Ballantrae residents seem eager for a change. And if you're right, what's wrong with Hilliard schools which is better in Dublin schools?

    These things sometimes have intensely personal triggers - like a kid the parents envisioned playing college ball not getting named to the starting squad on the Davidson football team, or not being selected to Honor Society in the junior year.

    Or maybe they got wind of the just-completed report of the Student Housing Committee, which might well lead to reconfiguration of the feeder paths, which could lead to Ballantrae being assigned to a high school other than Davidson, which was a big deal for that community the last time around.

  5. Paul,

    Isn't there are larger obstacle to them actually making this happen?

    Like DCSD actually wanting them in the school district? From what I can tell, they'd get a bunch of kids, but nowhere near the money needed to educate them from the taxes generated by the houses?

    Not to mention they'd need to buy Washington Elementary from HCSD, right? I am sure HCSD would take, say, $50 million for the school, right? :)

  6. Yes, Dublin City Schools would need to accept the annexation, and yes, there would have to be a negotiation to determine what assets would have to be purchased by Dublin Schools, which would likely include Washington Elementary. That would likely require the sale of bonds, which would have to be approved by the voters of their school district.

  7. Well, let's just be honest here. Coffman and Jerome serve a socioeconomically more homogenous and wealthy community. The residents of Ballantrae fit into the DCSD well both in terms of geography and demographics. Some people are into that.

    Here is the biggest problem as I see it with the Hilliard School District. Right now I am unwilling to build a deck on my home b/c I am a little concerned it will be an 'expense' rather than an 'investment'. I am not going to put a whole lot of money in a property whose value I believe is unstable.

    Which is why the upcoming levy makes less and less sense. Why would anyone pay a premium to own a riskier investment?

  8. T -

    Many say that the greatest risk to our community is having levies shot down, causing kinds of program/service slashing that we saw in South Western, and are now seeing in Pickerington. The argument is that the wiser economic choice is to pay more taxes and preserve your property value.

    Of course, there is also the argument you make, which is that constantly rising taxes diminishes property values as well.

    I think it's a little of both - taxes have to be reasonable, and the district has to deliver. The worst place of all is to have high taxes and underperforming schools, as is the case with Columbus Public Schools.

    If this next levy passes Hilliard will (according to FY10 data, which excludes levies passed since 2009) have the highest effective property tax rate of any school district in our region (Franklin, Delaware, Union, Madison, Pickaway, Fairfield and Licking Counties).

    And if we don't our rate of spending growth under control, we'll have to double our property taxes every 10 years to fund our spending.

    Hum, I wonder if Brown Twp could annex to Jonathan Alder...

  9. Little doubt in my mind that those Ballantrae folks in favor of changing districts are exhibiting the same attitudes as during the redistricting. If it is only the upcoming levy in HCSD, that would be pretty shortsighted as I don't think ANY of the suburban districts around here are immune from the levy cycle unless things change - in fact Dublin, being as anti-business as they tend to be, might be in worse shape a couple/few years down the road, although I have never looked at their 5 Year Forecast. Hilliard "stole" BMW from Dublin - whether true or not, a good friend in commercial real estate told me that BMW's decision was based heavily on the zoning regs in Dublin, and one conflict in particular pushed them over the edge. (The City of Hilliard should be playing that card, by the way) Anyway, given a choice between DCSD and Darby High School, those same folks who raised hell last time are going to lean to Dublin. Any idea how many students we are talking here? Depending on the number Dublin might welcome that with open arms. If $6000 of that property tax goes to the schools, and Dublin thinks it will come out net positive by absorbing the kids, then they will take it. And I think we all know that even if the "per pupil" cost is $10,000, or whatever, their costs will NOT necessarily go up by that figure times the number of kids. Again, depends on the number.

  10. Hillirdite:

    I think the evidence is that Dublin provides a positive environment for business - look at all the commercial property on Frantz Rd, Emerald Pkwy, Avery Rd, etc. This commercial base is a wonderful source of funding for both the City of Dublin and Dublin City Schools. Each mill of levy raises $41/pupil/yr from Hilliard business, and $65/pupil/yr in Dublin, or 59% more.

    I've gotta believe that the BMW decision was all about money, and Hilliard just offered the better deal. Remember that BMW received a 100% TIF from the City of Hilliard (with the blessings of the Hilliard School Board), which kept our school district whole, but I'm sure saved them a ton on taxes due other agencies.

  11. Paul - Can't argue your math, although it seems TIF's are a pretty common tool in "transferring" from one city to another, and as long as the school district is made whole, I don't have a major problem with it. Better than houses as we all know even if there are other downsides.
    Still wondering about the number of students and how that math works out - do you think Dublin would welcome Ballantrae with open arms, or even "politic" to get them? And why did they end up in the HCSD to begin with - I wasn't paying attention back then although I remember thinking it strange. And I have to believe (again, i could be wrong) that Washington Elementary is serving more than just Ballantrae proper - where would the true Hilliard kids go?

  12. Ballantrae would be a net negative to the City of Dublin (services demanded, but no income taxes), and at best a neutral for the Dublin School District, as would would mean lots of new kids, but not enough incremental revenue to offset the cost (of course you can play all kinds of incremental/fixed cost games to make the numbers come out if that's your goal).

    As for how Ballantrae ended up in Hilliard in the first place, that's covered in my novella above. The punch line is that those parcels have been in the Hilliard School District for many decades, but it was largely irrelevant since before Ballantrae was developed, there were very few kids living on the farms that made up the northern reaches of the Hilliard school district.

    "True Hilliard kids?" Most of the kids attending Hilliard City Schools do not live in the City of Hilliard. Over half live in the City of Columbus, but again, those parcels have been in the Hilliard School District forever. It's the municipal boundaries that have been moving, not the school district boundaries (except as required by the Win-Win Agreement).

    The attendance area for Washington Elementary does extend to more than just Ballantrae, but Washington is well under capacity, at 380 kids versus around 600 at Horizon and Darby Creek, in the southern part of the distrct. When we were doing the redistricting effort a few years back, more than one committee member said that Washington was built in the wrong place (ie on the Bradley grounds would have been better).

  13. Scratch my comment above about the City of Dublin. Ballantrae is of course already in the City of Dublin...

  14. Thanks again Paul for all your input... But I would like to go back to your response about Brown Township and an J Alder Annex. I Think this issue has been on the mind of all those landowners with big tracts out there near Bradley H.S. and within what is Brown Township. Sorry everyone but DCSD just will not court the Ballantrae idea, its a no-win scenario. Hum... with the Darby Town Center coming, Brown Township is in a very interesting position. HCSD and all its over spending has only one lifeline, coming by way of levy's ,is in for a massive homeowner bailout.Who will want to move to Hilliard ???

  15. That crack about Jonathan Alder was tongue in cheek of course. I've been a Brown Twp resident for more than 20 years, and can see Bradley from my front windows, by the way.

    The owners of the big tracts of land are, with few if any exceptions, looking for the day when they can sell their land for development. When it came time for the township trustees to vote on whether or not to join the Big Darby Accord, all kinds of "NO to the Big Darby Accord" signs popped up, and a number of the large landowners formed a group to formally oppose the BDA.

    Many of these large landowners don't live in the township any more, so they can't vote on the school levies anyway. Wouldn't matter if they could, as they represent a tiny fraction of the voters in our school district.

    If the May levy issue passes, I believe it will make us the school district with the highest effective property tax rate in the county. Of course, many other school districts are in the same boat, and will all be putting levies on the ballot in the near future if they don't figure out how to control the growth in spending.

    This is one Race to the Top we won't want to win...

  16. I spent a long time as a fan of the Big Darby Accord. In the past couple of weeks I've discovered what it's really about.

    Just go search for 'Agenda 21' online, and do some reading. The new 'Darby Town Center' is precisely what an 'Urban Village' is.

    We've all been horribly misled...

  17. I have looked at houses in the subdivision in question for purchase recently.

    1. Lots of distressed sales in the past four years, in Ballantrae foreclosures and short sales. The realtor I was working with told me, that a big sticking point for home sales in Ballantrae was that they were Hilliard schools and not Dublin Schools.

    It seems that some of the homeowners and real estate agents have an agenda to try to boost some of real estate values in Ballantrae.

  18. And you know, I don't have a problem with that being their agenda if they just say so out loud.

    It might even spark an important public debate about why the Ballantrae folks might feel this way, and how their feelings and concerns might be shared by others in the District.

    My problem is when folks try to advance a hidden agenda by inciting public fear about something else.

  19. Paul,

    Have you heard any more about this?

    I live in Ballantrae and have great interest in this issue.

    The main concern from most of my neighbors is that we dont end up in Columbus Public Schools. Most folks probably have an favorite between Dublin Schools and Hilliard Schools, but concede that both school districts are top notch.

    I just heard today that there is a current court case between a Ballantrae resident and the Hilliard School District involving this issue. Do you know if this is simply another rumor or if there is truth to this?

    At the end of the day Ballantrae residents by and large want some closure on this issue.

    Buyers that are looking at houses in our neighborhood are being told by realtors that the future school district is "up in the air" and could end up being Hilliard, Columbus or Dublin. Needless to say the mere possibility of Columbus Public Schools is hurting home values and scaring peope away.

    Any of your thoughts would be appreciated.

  20. I haven't heard anything about a lawsuit. Everything I know about this matter is captured in these two blog posts. You might want to contact Board Member Dave Lundregan, who is a Ballantrae resident.