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Since 1986, over 557 school districts throughout Ohio have taken advantage of a very generous program, courtesy of taxpayers, that allows school districts to pay for capital improvements done to their facilities. According to the Ohio School Facilities Commission, this program has funded over 952 projects, involving over 6,089 buildings, at a cost of over $1.25 billion, while saving taxpayers over $115 million. However, this privilege is open to district schools and their buildings only, and denied to charter schools.
The program, formally known as the Ohio School Facilities Commission Energy Conservation Program or the House Bill 264 Program, enables school districts to make energy-related improvements to district buildings that in theory would generate enough energy savings to eventually pay off the improvement bond from which the capital originated from its issuance, along with the cost of financing. The cost savings over 15 years for energy, operational, and maintenance must equal or exceed the cost of implementing the measures. The program allows energy-related improvements, as opposed to merely repairs. This may seem like semantics until the discussion turns on how exactly projects are paid for.
In Ohio, tax levies are typically raised in order to fund capital projects, including improvements to school buildings. Ohio law requires that such levies must be submitted to the voters of the school district for approval. Under HB 264, however, school districts can bypass this process of accountability by invoking the desired project as a qualified, energy-related, permanent improvement.
Once could argue that HB 264 is a subtle loophole, where public debt is incurred without the explicit consent of the taxpayer, and all in the name of energy conservation. Further many district schools have received taxpayer-sponsored loans that have gone above and beyond the anticipated payback period of fifteen years. No doubt, HB 264 is a great deal for district schools.
The argument here is not to dispute that energy conservation is not a meaningful public policy objective or even that HB 264’s ability to evade a levy vote by taxpayers is disingenuous. Rather, these same benefits should accrue to charter schools, and not just traditional district schools. For energy-conservation (and the cost-savings associated with it) should be addressed in all Ohio schools. A building, regardless of ownership, is either energy-efficient or inefficient. Making all schools energy efficient benefits the entire community, and the more vested parties in the program, the better.
Participation for energy conservation should cover the widest spectrum, in order to get the maximum result for the entire community. Therefore, lawmakers should amend HB 264 to include charter school facilities. The costs of this initiative are being picked up, after all, by every taxpayer in the community. It is only just that in a democracy, all vested parties who share in the costs should also share in the resulting benefits.