With shrinking state funding because of coronavirus-related cuts, at least one Central Ohio school district is taking their financial woes to voters.
Gahanna voters will decide in November whether to approve a three-part tax issue to pay for a new high school and additions to other school buildings.
The current Gahanna Lincoln High School campus on Hamilton Road is divided into three sections, the oldest built in 1928. About 10 years ago, the district built the Clark Hall annex for more classrooms, but students must cross Hamilton and Havens Corners Road to get there.
“That’s a great facility, but crossing the street eats up time in terms of the school day," says Steve Barrett, superintendent of Gahanna-Jefferson Schools.
Barrett says right now the high school has 2,200 students. By 2038, he estimates that number will grow to 2,800. A new high school is estimated to cost more than $165 million.
To pay for it, Gahanna has put a three-part tax issue on the November ballot, including a nearly 5 mill bond issue and a 1.5 mill permanent-improvement levy. There’s also a 4.26 mill operating levy to hire additional school staff for a growing enrollment, and for additional costs related to COVID-19.
All told, the measures would cost homeowners about $374 a year for a $100,000 home.
Barrett says that, despite the economic uncertainty from the coronavirus pandemic, it’s time to build for the future, and a new 21st century high school is the best solution. He says the district did consider two high schools.
“We would have to renovate the current high school, which some parts of it are over 100 years old, and it would be hard to provide equity for kids, some going to a brand new school, some going to a very dated space," says Barrett. "And the cost of renovating a very old space is astronomical.”
Barrett says the money is needed even more now because of state funding cuts during the pandemic. Gahanna-Jefferson has already lost $1.6 million from the state and looks to lose another $3 million in the next two years.
Despite that, the district is spending money on additional PPE needs like face masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer. Federal CARES Act money will cover some of those costs, Barrett says.
The Ohio School Board Association reports that in March, 64% of all school revenue issues passed. Only five districts are on the ballot in August.
“We’re going to be over 9,000 kids in 2038-39, and right now our elementary schools are burgeoning at the seams, our middle schools are burgeoning at the seams, and our high school is the ninth largest in the state,” says Barrett.
Gahanna voters have passed two school levies in recent years. One in 2018 raised funds to replace Lincoln Elementary, while another in 2014 was targeted for renovating school buildings and restrooms. But construction costs keep increasing.
“The longer we wait, the more it will cost to build a new high school and to do the renovations at the elementary and middle school," he says.
Gahanna school board president Beryl Brown Piccolantonio has three children currently attending the schools. She says the district cannot ignore the trend of more and more students enrolling.
“We are over capacity in every single one of our school buildings, and we will continue to grow," Brown Piccolantonio says.
For the start of the school year, though, Gahanna schools will hold only virtual learning classes.
Life-long Gahanna resident and homeowner Steve Cunningham says he usually supports school funding requests, but he thinks this year's timing, during a pandemic, seems wrong. Cunningham says he may have to adjust his life plans if voters approve the school levy and bond issue.
“I was thinking about retiring, but with that levy, if it gets passed, then I have to figure out how to make up $700 a year," says Cunningham.
Barrett says he’s waiting to hear what voters want.
“If our community says this is the wrong time, and that could very well happen, we’ll understand and we’ll adjust, but we think we need to give our community the opportunity to weigh in," Barrett says.