Columbus City Schools: Money matters

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In the last week, central Ohioans got an interesting look at how Columbus City Schools deals with its taxpayer-provided finances and assets, courtesy of two stories from the Columbus Dispatch.

First up, the district got some rare kudos following what is believed to be a hacking scare. The details are still unclear but it seems that direct deposit data for dozens of district employees were accessed and changed by an outside entity in an attempt to divert payroll money into prepaid debit cards. Scary stuff! And the district deserves props for safeguarding its employees by requiring that the first paycheck after a direct deposit change must be a hard copy one. But for that accounting control, many thousands of taxpayer dollars would have been lost.

I’m sure it was a pain for employees who count on the regularity and ease of a direct deposit, but it could have been far worse. Neither the district nor its employees lost a dime and the change was noticed as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately, not every dime of Columbus City Schools’ funding is equally valued.

Another Dispatch report detailed how an effort by the district to sell a surplus school building to The Ohio State University has foundered due to what is termed “bureaucracy” by the school board president. The financial aspects of the story stand in stark contrast to the above caution and care.

Ohio law requires that charter schools be given right of first refusal on buying any excess school buildings, but only when sold via public auction. The deal with the university—a “state entity”—meant Columbus could skip the public auction and work solely with the preselected buyer. This kept a pesky competitor from grabbing a purpose-built school facility, rare as hen’s teeth for charter schools. However, it also resulted in a lowball price (30 percent below the previously appraised value) that will likely net the district hundreds of thousands of dollars less than they would have received through competitive bidding. Did any charter school want the building? Were they willing to offer a higher price? Who knows? Comparative data provided by the Dispatch shows that recent competitively bid properties, including a bus compound, sold for a collective 16 percent above appraised value.

Luckily for the district, OSU was also willing to negotiate with Columbus to hammer out what they might or might not do with the building, according to the Dispatch story, including not reselling it to a charter school. If you’re starting to think that keeping out the competition was of more concern to the district than maximizing the return on taxpayers’ investment, you may be on to something.

Finally, the agreement included an earnest fee payment of $25,000 to Columbus City Schools should the closing on the sale not happen by a prescribed date. When the aforementioned bureaucracy reared its head, that deadline was exceeded. Luckily for the university, the district was not serious about the earnest money, or even the deadline. Even if the check had been cut, the school board president reported, he probably wouldn’t have cashed it anyway. Despite all of this, the deal is still ongoing with neither urgency nor deadline. Here’s hoping there are more questions to come about the implications of this sale to the district and its residents.

So, kudos to Columbus City Schools for safeguarding thousands of dollars of its employees’ taxpayer-funded payroll money (which was probably insured against theft anyway) and brickbats to them for squandering hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer-funded assets with a janky deal intended mainly to screw over charter schools.

This Columbus taxpayer is glad to have more proof of where the district’s fiscal priorities lie.

Jeff Murray
Jeff Murray is the Ohio Operations Manager of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute,