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Published: Tuesday, 8/7/2012

School-building panel misses completion goal

ASSOCIATED PRESS

COLUMBUS -- An Ohio commission formed 15 years ago to fix and replace the state's crumbling school buildings has completed about half its work after spending nearly $10 billion in state and local money.

The amount of funding for the remainder of the work that could take until 2025 remains undetermined.

The Ohio School Facilities Commission, founded in 1997 to replace and repair school buildings once rated the worst in the nation, had estimated it could finish its work by 2012.

But that goal has been missed because of increases in construction costs, the nation's poor economic climate, and some districts' struggles with funding their portions of the projects, said Richard Hickman, the commission's executive director. But he said the program appears to be picking up steam again.

"We've got six who already have their funding [approved] and four more lined up to go to the ballot in August and November," Mr. Hickman told the Columbus Dispatch. "Last year at this time, only four districts had their funding."

Although nearly 1,000 schools have been built or renovated since the commission was formed, and money has been offered to about 450 districts, about 100 so far have been unable to secure local matching funds for the projects.

The latest date projected for completing the work would be based on funding about 25 districts ayear.

The Ohio General Assembly allocates funding for the commission, but the amount varies from budget year to budget year.

Mr. Hickman said the commission will continue to seek the money needed to complete its work.

"I think it's a program that's leading the nation in terms of what we're doing help rebound the school districts," Mr. Hickman told the Dayton Daily News.

Some commission funding has come from Ohio's share of the annual lawsuit settlement payments to states from the country's largest tobacco companies. The 1998 settlement was made so states would stop suing tobacco companies to recover health-care costs from tobacco-related illnesses.

The commission received more than $4.1 billion in 2007 from the sale of bonds backed by Ohio's share of those payments.

Of the money deposited that year, those funds were exhausted by the start of July, 2012, the commission has said.

The state approved $675 million in funding for the current year. That money will come from $425 million in bond sales backed by Ohio's general revenue fund and $250 million from license fees paid by seven racetracks for video lottery terminals.

The commission last month announced funding approval for 27 schools or districts, with the commission contributing $479 million of the $1.1 billion in the projects. The schools or districts must raise their share of the budget total within 13 months to receive the state funds.

Five elementary schools are to be built in Lancaster in central Ohio, with the state covering about one-third of the $88 million project.

The superintendent of southwest Ohio's Springfield City Schools district, where a 16-building, $195.4 million project was completed, said its buildings are tremendous assets.

"We've really tried to open them up for as much community use as we possibly could, because these should be pride points for any area," Superintendent Dave Estrop said.

The commission was created to aid all 614 school districts and 49 joint vocational districts.



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