Review of ‘Win-Win’ school-district deal underway

By Bill Bush

The Columbus Dispatch

The “Win-Win” legal accord that allows suburban school districts to continue to serve parts of the city of Columbus is up for renewal, meaning that the 30-year-old truce over annexations is once again in jeopardy.

The window for districts to vote to pull out of the agreement opened on Friday and closes at the end of May, said Jeff Rich, a tax attorney who briefs school officials on the terms of the accord every six years when it comes up for renewal.

“If they do nothing, it just rolls over” for another six years, Rich said. But if a district votes to end the accord, “we would have war here in central Ohio.”

Ohio Rep. Mike Duffey, a critic of Win-Win who last year sponsored a bill that would have ended the accord, said Rich is being overly dramatic. Win-Win should end, he said, so that Columbus homeowners in suburban school districts won’t have to worry every six years that they could be switched to Columbus schools.

“Boundaries are boundaries, and boundaries should not change,” Duffey said.

Duffey said he has met with Columbus Superintendent Dan Good, who was “sympathetic to the rationale that there wasn’t a logical reason for (Win-Win) to continue indefinitely.”

“Just to clarify,” Good spokesman Scott Varner said in an email, “what he shared with State Representative Duffy (is) Dr. Good does agree that the structure of the Win-Win agreement deserves measured review . and that’s exactly what the agreement calls for every 6 years and is the process we’ve proactively begun.”

The 1986 legal pact called a truce to a political battle over which school districts had the legal right to teach children and collect taxes in fast-growing areas of Columbus: Columbus schools or the existing suburban districts that were serving unincorporated areas of the county that Columbus was annexing.

The agreement says that any property in the city of Columbus that was served by a suburban school district as of 1986 remains there as long as the accord is in place. In return, Columbus schools get 1 percent of the tax growth, capped at $1.15 million, from new construction of commercial and industrial properties in Columbus areas the suburban districts serve. To school districts, commercial/industrial properties are free money, paying taxes without adding students.

Property annexed into Columbus after 1986 automatically entered Columbus City Schools.

As a result, so-called Win-Win islands, which don’t connect to the original Columbus school district, today are scattered around the outlying areas of Franklin County.

Without Win-Win, Columbus schools could petition the State Board of Education to annex parts of Columbus that it doesn’t serve. When the district threatened to do that in 1980 - three years after a federal judge ordered Columbus schools to desegregate - suburban homeowners fretted that their children would suddenly get swept into a massive busing-for-desegregation plan.

Politicians, including a young John Kasich, who was at the time a state senator serving Westerville, Gahanna and Worthington, opposed Columbus schools’ annexation efforts. The legislature issued a moratorium on transferring new territory to urban districts, a ban that remained in place until Win-Win ended the battle six years later.

Today, the agreement nets Columbus City Schools just under $5 million a year, which is a little more than half a percent of the district’s roughly $780 million general fund. But the idea that suburban districts are “paying ransom” has loomed larger than the modest price tag.

Last summer, saying he was acting on behalf of Dublin school officials, Duffey inserted an amendment into the state budget bill that would have allowed suburban districts to stop paying Columbus by taking away Columbus schools’ ability to annex city of Columbus land unless the current school district agreed. Without the threat of annexation, Dublin would have stopped paying, Duffey said.

Dublin officials wouldn’t comment last summer - nor this week, except to say they look forward to the upcoming dialogue. Dublin pays Columbus the maximum $1.15 million a year.

Hilliard City Schools, also paying the maximum $1.15 million, plans to allow the pact to renew, said spokeswoman Stacie Raterman. “We are good with it,” Raterman said.

Westerville City Schools pays $511,000 to Columbus schools but collects another $30 million in taxes from the area of Columbus it serves, a quarter of its tax base, said spokesman Greg Viebranz.

“There have been no public discussions per se of the board’s intentions at this time,” Viebranz said.

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