For nearly eight years, charter and community schools in Ohio have had an advantage: first dibs on any public school property that was for sale. It’s a process called a right of first refusal.
House Bill 43 will eliminate that advantage.
Right now, if a school district wants to sell or lease unused real property, like a school building that hasn’t been used in at least two years, it has to first offer that property to schools of choice in the district. Community or charter schools, STEM schools, and college preparatory boarding schools are schools of choice in Ohio.
The school district is required to let all the schools know that the property is available and then give them 60 days to respond.
If no school of choice is interested, the district can sell the property at a public auction and anyone can bid on it.
The law was created in 2011 in order to give educational entities first priority in the sale of educational buildings, something public school districts had been reluctant to do.
But even with the law, schools of choice encountered problems.
In a 2016 study of Ohio’s top-performing charter schools, “about half (49 percent) report that local school districts are ‘generally uncooperative’ when it comes to making buildings and facilities available.”
“Charter leaders speculate that they might be denied an available building by the local district because they are viewed as the competition or because district leaders are reluctant to rile organized groups such as the teachers’ union,” the study said.
In fact, in 2016, the Cleveland Municipal School District decided to demolish “the architecturally impressive Jesse Owens school,” saying “the district would not have been at able to sell the Jesse Owens building to a developer without first offering it to a charter school, a course the district did not want to pursue.”
But if passed, H.B. 43, introduced by State Representative Catherine Ingram (D-32), would end the right of first refusal and allow districts to proceed directly to a public auction. Those schools of choice would become part of the normal auction process if they wanted the property.
H.B. 43 is Rep. Ingram’s second attempt to remove the provision from Ohio law. A similar bill was introduced during the last General Assembly but had only one hearing in committee and was not acted upon.
She called the current law “an example of bureaucratic red-tape that can and should be eliminated.”
“This legislation does not prevent community schools, college-preparatory boarding schools and STEM schools from attempting to purchase school district property,” Rep. Ingram said of the first bill. “It instead allows them to participate in the public auction process similar to any other interested party and frees up school districts from the nuisance of delaying property sales for 60 days.”
Aaron Churchill, Ohio Research Director for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, disagrees. He believes that if there is a demand for school buildings in the district, unused property should be offered first to other educational entities.
He said facilities for charter schools are a challenge because “they don’t have the ability to pass a levy like traditional public schools do, so getting, constructing or renovating a building is very difficult.”
The current law provides an “obvious sort of solution to obtaining a facility if you’re a charter, especially because charters are public schools,” he added. “The buildings are already existing and have already been paid for. There’s no reason to horde buildings.”
Churchill also pointed out that it isn’t just any school of choice that gets the right of first refusal.
“In Ohio,” he said, “high-performing charter schools get preference, so the law gives first priority to a proven educational model over others.”
Rep. Ingram’s first bill had five co-sponsors—all Democrats. H.B. 43 has 10 co-sponsors, including three Republicans.
Representative George Lang (R-52) said he is a supporter of charter schools, but doesn’t think the current law is fair to everyone.
“I don’t think you can be pro-choice and pro-competition like I am and not give public schools an opportunity to compete in the marketplace,” he explained. “I’m a supporter of charter schools and school choice, but we can’t put public schools at a disadvantage” in the process.
Margaret Basie, a legislative aide for Representative Craig S. Riedel (R-82), said Rep. Riedel is a sponsor and does support the bill, but did not want to make a separate statement at this time.
Representative Don Jones (R-95), the other Republican co-sponsor, did not respond to a request for comment.
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