Reynoldsburg City Schools is looking for ways to deal with growing enrollment, and that could include a new early learning center and an operating levy on the ballot.

The school board held a special work session Feb. 25 to discuss ways to balance rising enrollment and flat funding.

Board members heard presentations and scenarios presented by district officials as "starting points."

"The timelines aren't fixed," Superintendent Melvin Brown said.

"These are just ideas we've been hashing out over the six to eight months. We're not making any decisions yet. It's a lot to take in."

Building for the future

Reynoldsburg will be at capacity in its elementary buildings by the 2023-24 school year, when it expects to enroll more than 3,100 elementary students. This school year the elementary schools have 2,892 students.

There is more breathing room for the upper grades, but most district elementary schools are at or near capacity, said Chris Reed, director of operations and services.

In the past two school years, district enrollment has climbed about 500 students to about 7,800.

One potential method to address rising elementary enrollment would include building a new, multistory early learning center named for Hannah J. Ashton on the same property where the current eponymous middle school sits.

That would place all prekindergarten and kindergarten students -- about 1,200 annually -- in one building, Reed said. The center also would include space for district administrative offices, the welcome center and the center for deeper learning.

Reed said an early learning center is estimated to cost about $47 million.

The current school, 1482 Jackson St., needs a "minimum" of $12 million in upgrades and improvements, Reed said. Portions of the building date to 1868.

Under this proposal, the district would look for ways to preserve and reuse the current building, but it no longer would be used as a school, Reed said.

A new early learning center would allow the district to better plan for all-day kindergarten, something it's piloting at French Run and Rose Hill elementary schools with the help of $1.4 million in federal grant money.

"There's no room to expand" the pilot, Brown said. "We need the space."

Reed said opening the early learning center by 2024 would free enough space in elementary buildings to account for projected growth through 2035.

Paying for it

As it deals with educating more children each year, the district also is facing a looming double-digit deficit.

Reynoldsburg's most recent five-year forecast projects the district will see expenditures outpace revenues in fiscal 2021, treasurer Tammy Miller said.

By fiscal 2024, Reynoldsburg will face a $12.9 million deficit.

Salaries and benefits for about 800 employees account for about 71% of the district's $81.7 million budget, Miller said. Purchased services and capital outlay -- money to cover things like building repair and maintenance -- account for the next two largest budget categories.

Nearly half the district's funding -- about $39.7 million -- comes from the state. That amount is projected to remain flat over the next five years, Miller said.

About 40% comes from property and income taxes.

Miller said the district in January received an updated property valuation that "ticked up" by $10 million to $750 million.

"It will help our projections for next year be a little bit better," Miller said.

But she cautioned that just because property values go up, "that does not increase revenues in a 1:1 ratio."

Reynoldsburg voters likely will need to approve an operating levy in the next few years unless there are dramatic increases in state funding or property-tax revenues, Miller said.

District officials said they continue to press state leaders on the so-called "cap," which, they say, costs the district about $4 million each year.

School districts cannot limit their enrollment growth, but the state can and has limited the percentage of additional funding it is willing to give to growing districts -- including Reynoldsburg, which is among several central Ohio school districts that are capped by the state-funding formula.

Ohio's current funding formula calculates how much the state will pay each district based on enrollment. The formula provides additional funding for students in certain categories -- for instance, those who have limited proficiency in English, those who are considered economically disadvantaged and those who are in special-education classes.

However, the state budget for education does not include enough money to cover every district once the per-pupil and category calculations are made. That's when caps are applied.

In 2018, the school board unanimously approved a resolution opposing the current state funding formula, calling it unconstitutional.

According to the resolution, the money the district does not receive from the state because of funding caps is "roughly the amount of a 6.8-mill levy, which is a major factor in the district's need to return to taxpayers for additional revenues."

An operating levy would not provide money for new construction like the early learning center.

The district's last operating levy was approved in 2010. That 9.9-mill levy started collecting in 2011 but it was "incrementally started at 6.9 mills and added on a mill every year so it took four years to get to full collection," Miller said.

Most districts are on the ballot about every five years, Miller said.

"I'm a firm believer that you don't wait until the year before you need a levy to start having these conversations," she said.

Last month Reynoldsburg launched an online survey to gather input from the community on finances. Officials said the feedback would help guide how the district addresses funding shortfalls. Results are expected to be reported to the board this spring.

The next board meeting is at 6:30 p.m. March 17 at City Hall, 7232 E. Main St.

The five-year forecast and 2019 district financial profile are online at reyn.org/treasurersoffice.aspx.

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