December 19, 2014

Elyria
Cloudy
28°F
test

Elyria Schools superintendent determined to get new elementaries

ELYRIA — Superintendent Paul Rigda is determined to get new elementary school buildings built in Elyria.

The leader of Elyria Schools just needs state lawmakers and the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission to get on board. It won’t be easy, but history has proven that when presented with roadblocks, Elyria officials have had success.

Rigda said his idea is simple: He would like the state funding agency to give Elyria the dollars it has set aside for Elyria’s elementary building project even though the district has not passed a bond issue to help co-fund it.

“We’re talking about millions that the state is holding onto, and so far they have told us ‘No, it won’t happen unless you pass a bond issue,’ ” Rigda said. “We could be putting kids in new classrooms, we could be putting people to work and we could be saving money because these buildings would be energy-efficient buildings. But the answer has been no.”

Rigda said he took his idea to Rick Hickman, the commission’s director, several months ago. He even told the state agency that Elyria was willing to use OFCC guidelines to ensure the buildings are built to state standards and sign off on any future state help to build new middle schools.

But agreeing on those terms isn’t just a reversal of commission philosophy, it’s also against the law, said spokesman Rick Savors.

“Until such time the law is changed, we don’t have the statutory authority to just hand money to districts and say, ‘Go build.’ ” he said.

Rigda then reached out to state Sen. Gayle Manning, a North Ridgeville Republican and former public school teacher. The idea seemed intriguing enough for Manning to also talk to Hickman, but she said the conversation resulted in the same answer.

She stopped short Monday of saying she no longer supported Rigda, but she said without Hickman’s support, crafting legislation that has a hope of passing would be hard.

“No idea is a bad idea, but the state wants some kind of reassurance that everyone is on the same page. Having a local share makes sure everyone has some teeth in the game, and no one is getting something for nothing,” she said.

In existence since 1997, the commission has given more than $10.5 billion to 320 districts to build schools. The actual funding breakdown may change with each project as wealthier districts are offered less state funding, but it’s always a state and local partnership, Savors said.

“The law requires that when we do these programs there is a state component and a local component,” Savors said. “The law is very specific in saying that we can’t release ours without the other. And if the local share is not there, the districts will have to wait until such time it can raise the local share.”

Rigda said he just doesn’t see a bond issue passing anytime soon.

The district learned in 2011 the commission would offer Elyria more than $38 million if it could get a $50 million local match.

But after conducting a community survey, a bond initiative never made it to the ballot. Rigda said that survey told him that it wouldn’t pass.

Right now the district can’t even get voters to give it more money for operations. A November 2012 push for a 4.99-mill levy was defeated by more than 1,200 votes.

“All I care about is getting the money,” Rigda said. “The spirit of that law was to put kids in new schools. Not wait for a district, that is already poor, already strapped and already on record that it cannot pass a new levy to pass an impassable bond issue.”

According to the 2013 school funding eligibility list, of the more than 610 districts in the state, 50 others have had funding offered to them but did not receive it because they could not pass a bond issue.

Clear Fork Valley Schools Superintendent Matthew Dill knows the struggle to get local funding too well. In the Richland County district, school officials have tried numerous times to get local funding for new schools since state money was offered in 2004.

After voters voted down several bond issues, Dill said a shift was made to focus on district operations. Clear Fork Valley just saw its first infusion of new money in 20 years this past August in an earned income tax levy for operating expenses.

“We’re just maintaining what we have, focusing on operations and strengthening classroom instruction,” Dill said.

No new attempts for a bond issue are planned there, even though elementary students attend classes in two buildings built in the early 1900s.

Dill said he welcomes anyone willing to put forth new ideas on how to fund schools in the state.

“At this point, no idea is a bad idea,” he said. “We need to be innovative on how we fund schools.”

Savors said districts that see their funding lapse are still eligible for state funding. But instead of the state offering money a second time and then asking districts to get the local match, districts have to pass a bond issue first and then ask the state. And if a district simply can’t pass a bond issue, the money becomes available to another district.

The possibility of running out of money before Elyria can get taxpayers on board should not be a concern, Savors said.

“In one form or another, we have completed just half of the work we are expected to complete under this program,” he said. “We won’t be done until 2025 at the earliest.”

If Elyria can get a lawmaker to help rewrite the law, it will not be the first time Elyria has pushed the envelope to get a school built. Before the high school was built, school officials learned Elyria was not eligible for state funding because it was too far down on the funding list. But after inviting state officials to tour the collapsing old school building, Elyria saw a change in the law and adjustment in the state budget.

“We could do something like that again, but I’m hitting a brick wall,” Rigda said.

So what’s next? Rigda said he doesn’t know because he is alone in this pursuit.

“I’m one guy — just one superintendent out of 612,” he said. “But I’m just this guy who is passionate about righting a wrong when I see an injustice. My greatest fear is this money will eventually go to something else.”

Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or lroberson@chroniclet.com.