COLUMBUS (WKBN) – Ohio school buildings in need of renovations and upgrades is a multi-billion dollar problem that has been in the process of being addressed for the last 20 years.
In 2017, there are still students in schools across Ohio that must learn in classrooms that have no central air or heat. Some buildings have walls so thick that wi-fi can’t penetrate them or roofs that leak, putting the ceilings overhead at risk of falling on students.
The Ohio School Facility Commission came to be in 1997 after the State Supreme Court found Ohio had been failing to keep its schools in acceptable condition. Each budget year, the legislature sets money aside for that commission to dole out to the districts with dire needs and a lack of resources to meet them.
There are more than 500 school districts across the state and through 2015, nearly half of them have had all of their school buildings built or renovated with money from the commission.
In all, more than $12 billion has been spent over the past 20 years through the commission.
But it hasn’t been enough. Half of the state’s school districts still have crumbling schools in need of repair or replacement.
Columbus Alternative High School is one of them.
Sophia Kempf, a student at the school, says trying to learn there is no easy task.
“We’re sitting there, shivering, which makes you a little bit tired and then you’re wearing your coat because it’s cold out.”
The school has no central heat or air. When the temperatures rise, students must drink from water bottles or risk dehydration and passing out. Kempf said one teacher suffered heat stroke because it was so hot in the classroom.
United States Senator Sherrod Brown said the state legislature has failed its citizens.
“We’ve had a state legislature that, frankly, hasn’t stepped up on education and health care — two of its most important functions.”
That is why he’s introduced federal legislation to step into the gap left by the state.
Brown’s school infrastructure bill would set aside $70 billion for schools across the country to access via grants for infrastructure needs.
“Our schools are woefully underfunded. The legislature hasn’t done its job,” Brown said.
State Senator Randy Gardner, a Republican representing the 2nd Senate District, said lawmakers are doing everything they can to find ways to help students. He said that’s still not an excuse.
“When it comes to schools, I don’t think legislators ever should be satisfied that everything’s being done that can be done.”
State Senator Michael Skindell, a Democrat representing the 23rd Senate District, is definitely not satisfied with what has been done.
“We are not providing enough dollars for operating expenses and we are really limiting on the construction side, the maintenance side for the school buildings,” he said. “It’s strangling the school districts at both ends.”
When he says limiting the construction side of things, Skindell is referring to the School Facility Commission. It only matches 30 percent of what the school district raises for its project.
Back to that $12 billion, after the 30 percent from the state, the people of Ohio ended up paying the balance on all of those projects over the past 20 years by way of levies and bonds.
The Columbus City School District just asked its voters to approve a levy for construction costs, which they did cautiously.
The school district is in the group whose buildings still need to be upgraded — the second half that hasn’t had all their buildings built or renovated with commission funding.
The district’s buildings continue to degrade because it can’t keep up with maintenance costs, which would come from day-to-day funding from the state, which is a different pot of money.
According to the GOP communications department for the State Senate, from 2006 to 2015, per pupil funding for day-to-day operations at schools increased by 33 percent from around 9,700 to 13,000.
However, the Columbus City School District has too many kids enrolled and as a result, its funding has been capped.
This year, the district is missing out on $83 million. That’s 6,461.5 students that the district is educating for free, in a sense. A lot of maintenance can be done with $83 million.
The GOP communications department for the statehouse also says funding of schools increased by $900 million in the budget created in the 131st general assembly and another $240 million this year.
But with state funding models changing every few years, Democrats say school districts can’t rely on consistent amounts.
And there is another problem. The money being used to fund the School Facilities Commission is running out.
Back in 2007, the state decided to use the tobacco settlement dollars and Sen. Skindell said those dollars are dwindling. He said the state will need to find a new source of money for these projects.
Ultimately, whether it is federal money from Sen. Brown’s bill that Columbus Alternative High School uses to renovate won’t affect Kempf. She’s a senior and by the time all of that happens, she will have moved on with her life.
In that case, she doesn’t care who pays for the improvements, she just wants the kids in the grades behind her to reap the benefits.
“I just want them to be able to focus and do their best because we couldn’t have that,” she said.