The 13.5 million square feet of asphalt surrounding Columbus City Schools facilities could build a sidewalk stretching to Chicago and back.
The district’s 842 buses carry 40,000 students to and from school daily. Its 130 facilities span 9 million square feet.
But there isn’t much money set aside to maintain its sprawling infrastructure going forward, district officials say.
And despite injecting $125 million into aging buildings since 2017, 13 of its 109 schools still will not have air conditioning by 2021, when that “Operation: Fix It” initiative ends.
“It was a jump start to chip away at that deferred maintenance,” said Stan Bahorek, Columbus City Schools treasurer. “We still have a long list of projects that are just waiting for funding.”
On April 27, a committee of community members tasked with evaluating the financial future of the state’s largest school district listened to Bahorek make a case for a new permanent-improvements levy – specifically, a property tax issue that could generate $45 million annually.
Alex Trevino, the district’s director of capital improvements, joined him.
The pair also emphasized the need to update the district’s facilities master plan to support larger, future building projects. The current plan, created in 2002 and refreshed a few times since then, is outdated.
The April 27 meeting was the first of four planned by the “millage committee,” all streamed live on the district’s Facebook page and YouTube channel. The discussion focused almost solely on facility needs.
The committee of more than 20 district collaborators, which the Columbus Board of Education assembled earlier this year, ultimately will recommend whether the school board should place a tax levy for operations or a facility issue — or both, or neither — on the ballot for the Nov. 3 general election.
The committee met May 4 and is scheduled to meet from 5:30 to 7:30 Monday, May 11, and again May 18. Those, respectively, focus on facilities, academic operations and crafting an official recommendation for the board.
The board is scheduled to meet May 19.
A permanent-improvements levy is a specific funding stream used only for the renovation and maintenance of buildings, or the purchase of equipment and supplies, such as buses and technology. Such levies eliminate the need to pull from a general fund to support such long-term projects.
Currently, the district has one levy supporting permanent improvements. It generates $4.8 million yearly.
“That’s a tad bit short of the $45 million we need,” Bahorek said, based on his estimates of annual maintenance costs.
For example, about one-fourth of the district’s bus fleet is at least 15 years old, with each replacement bus costing at least $100,000. To keep the district on a replacement schedule, it would need to buy 71 buses annually, at a cost of about $7 million to $8 million.
It would cost nearly $4 million a year under a similar schedule to maintain and replace when necessary the district’s asphalt and concrete parking lots and playgrounds.
And as students have started learning online because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, the need to update and maintain technology is clear.
The Detroit school district, which has about the same number of students as Columbus City Schools, received 50,000 new laptops and six months of free internet connections from donors last week at a value of about $23 million.
“There are a lot of unknowns,” said Jordan A. Miller Jr., a committee co-chairman who noted that members received “a lot to think about” at the Aril 27 meeting.
The committee’s co-chairmen are Miller, a business adviser who retired in 2018 as president of Fifth Third Bank’s central Ohio region, and district alumnus Phillip Calloway, a senior financial analyst with the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio.
Bahorek is facilitating the committee, and Columbus Board of Education President Jennifer Adair and member Michael Cole are ex officio members.
Ultimately, the decision to place an issue on the ballot is contingent upon the entire committee’s recommendation.
“You are not a rubber stamp,” Adair told committee members. “You are very important to the process, and your recommendation will carry weight.”
District leaders followed a similar strategy in 2016, also a presidential election year, when voters approved the district’s most recent levy, which generates about $50 million annually for operations and the previously mentioned $4.8 million for building maintenance.
About 62% of voters supported that tax package.
That issue raised residents’ tax bills by 18%, or $242 yearly for every $100,000 in property value.
If recommended by the committee, approved by the board and then approved by voters, a successful levy in November would generate funds starting in 2021.
Who serves on the committee?
Members of the Columbus City Schools 2020 millage committee are:
• Co-chairman Phillip Calloway, Public Utilities Commission of Ohio
• Co-chairman Jordan A. Miller Jr., retired president of Fifth Third Bank’s central Ohio region
• Lourdes Barrosa de Padilla, Latina Mentoring Academy
• Lois Carson, Columbus School Employees Association
• Jo Ellen Cline, Franklin County Auditor’s Office
• John Coneglio, Columbus Education Association
• The Rev. Victor Davis, Trinity Baptist Church
• Debby Deschanau, Columbus Schools Classified Supervisors Association
• The Rev. Dorian Grant, Greater 12th Baptist Church, Baptist Pastors Conference of Columbus and Greater Vicinity
• Sean Grant, One Columbus
• Sam Gresham, SGI International
• Michael Jones, Coldwell Banker King Thompson
• Eva Provenzale McVey, EcoFlora
• Kimberly Mills, Columbus Administrator Association
• Jawahir Mohamed, community member
• Ismail Mohamed, Ismail Law Office
• Tracy Najera, Children’s Defense Fund
• Engja Ndiaye, G.O.R.E.E Insurance Co.
• Jim Negron, Corna Kokosing
• Sudarsan Pyakurel, Bhutan Nepali Community of Columbus
• Betty Simmons-Talley, NAACP
• Matt Smydo, city of Columbus Education Department
• N. Michelle Sutton, community member
• Yohannan Terrell, Warhol & WALL ST.
• Jennifer Adair, ex officio member, Columbus Board of Education president
• Michael Cole, ex officio member, Columbus Board of Education member
• Stan Bahorek, facilitator, Columbus City Schools treasurer