Big Walnut school officials have responded to a district resident’s claim that a planned $135 million bond issue is “a fraud … against the taxpayers” of the school district.
During 2015, with rapid residential growth hovering on the Big Walnut Local School District’s horizon, school district administrators contracted with Tracey Healy of FutureThink to complete a 10-year enrollment study. That study used past and recent trends combined with anticipated residential housing growth numbers provided by district townships and villages to project student population growth through 2025.
Healey’s numbers estimated student population growth in the low, moderate, most likely, and high ranges, projecting a 62 percent most likely to 79 percent high-end student population growth over the next 10 years. District administrators have said current facilities would not accommodate the number of additional students expected over the next decade; that district buildings would be over capacity at every grade level by 2019 at the most likely estimate – one year later at a moderate growth rate.
Using those numbers, members of the school district’s Facilities Committee examined options for meeting anticipated growth and recommended that the school district build a new high school and one new elementary building, move middle school students to the existing high school, move intermediate school students to the existing middle school, convert the intermediate school into an elementary building and in-town pre-school facility, and upgrade all district buildings.
From November 4 through May 4, members of the Facilities Planning Committee held a series of nine community forums to share enrollment study data and discuss options with school district area residents.
Committee members said renovating the existing high school would cost more than a new high school, and the needed renovations could not be completed at the landlocked site while school was in session. They also noted that because it takes at least four years to secure land and design and build a high school, the district was already too late in beginning the process.
During the community forums, committee members shared Healy’s student population growth information using graphics, answered resident’s questions, noted resident’s concerns, and explained the reasoning behind the committee’s recommendation for meeting growth.
During the Thursday, May 19 board of education meeting, board members took the first formal step towards placing a loaded $135 million bond issue on the November ballot by approving a Resolution Requesting State Consent to Issue Bonds in that amount.
District resident Ron Buxton, who questions the reliability of Healy’s numbers and the need to move forward with a $135 million bond issue, attended the forums and was also present during the May board meeting. Following the board meeting, and in a Friday, May 20, email, Buxton expressed a need for “… an investigation into the activities of the Big Walnut Board of Education.”
On Thursday, May 26, district superintendent Angie Pollock and district treasurer Terri Day responded to items in Buxton’s email – item by item.
Buxton wrote that board of education members used school district funds to hire Healy to provide the enrollment projection for the district, and that “… Future Think was requested by someone from the district to identify the 62% growth projection as the ‘Most Likely’ to happen. That request appears to violate the district’s Code of Ethics as well as public law and raises the issue of misuse of public funds.”
Pollock said it’s untrue that someone from the school district asked Healy to identify 62 percent as a most likely percentage of student population growth over the next 10 years.
“No one from the district recommended a percentage,” Pollock said. “Tracy came to us with four levels of anticipated growth, and as we looked at the data together we agreed that the third highest one would be the most likely based on Tracy’s explanation of the factors considered; and it’s a permitted use of public funds to do enrollment an study, especially if a school district is growing. In my opinion, it would be negligent not to do an enrollment study when you’re facing growth.”
Buxton’s email stated that the Facilities Planning Committee was comprised of mostly district employees and two school board members.
“The purpose of the group was to develop a plan of action based on the data to be derived by comparing actual housing starts with projections contained in the study,” Buxton wrote. “The committee apparently ignored any hard data being generated, relying instead on the reputation of Tracy Healy and the so-called ’ Most Likely ’ projection.”
Pollock said last Thursday that the Facilities Planning Committee was composed of 28 members – two of them board of education members, 12 district staff members (seven of them the district’s building principals, plus Pollock, Day, and assistant superintendent Mark Cooper), and 14 community members – engineers, commercial building professionals, a real estate professional, one mayor, one township trustee, one state security professional.
Pollock also noted that Healy’s numbers were based on hard data gathered from township and village officials combined with long-term trends – not just a single quarter’s building statistics.
Buxton wrote that school district dollars were used “… to create and distribute, to every household in the district, a post card mailer that, through the use of deceitful information and untrue information, an impending catastrophe may befall the district if swift and broad actions are not taken at the earliest possible moment.”
Buxton said it appears that the postcard violates the existing code of ethics, consumer protection laws, and civil rights issues with regard to election laws. He also said that during the public forums board of education members and Facilities Planning Committee members presented unlabeled and/or mislabeled documents and graphics that may have deceived some in the audience as to the existing situation and future needs of the district.
Pollock said that Healy completed the school district’s 2007 enrollment study and the numbers from that study were, in Pollock’s words, spot on.
“She was also spot on with Olentangy’s projections,” Pollock said. “We understand it’s not a perfect science, but we have to make decisions based on the best information we can assemble – and not for one year; we have to look at trends.”
Pollock said the card that was mailed out was sent to every district household, not just to voters; that it was for information purposes, not a campaign mailer.
“We called our attorney and asked if we could spend school dollars before we sent the mailer out,” Pollock said. “She said it was OK if it was just to educate the community; and the purpose of the community forums was educate and share information. With the growth we’re facing we would’ve been negligent not to do so.”
Buxton said board members voting to place a bond issue not to exceed $135 million on the November ballot “… to rectify a situation that may or may not exist at some point in the future,” would be based solely “… on the expertise of Tracy Healy with no reference made to the existence of any hard data that would support any such ballot issue.
“It is my opinion, based on the information gathered to date and pending a response from The District with regard to my Freedom of Information Request, that the Big Walnut Board of Education has conspired with Tracy Healy of Future Think, the District Administrators and the Members of the Facilities Planning Committee to commit fraud in the aggregate amount of $135 million against the taxpayers of the Big Walnut School District,” Buxton wrote in ending his email.
Pollock replied that Healy is a well-respected professional in her field; that the district has used her in the past and district administrators spoke with several superintendents of other school districts that have used her expertise for enrollment projections.
“Tracy makes sound projections that have shown to be valid,” Pollock said. “We have a responsibility to provide the community with the best information available; and we feel the recommendations made by the facilities committee to the board is based on the best information available at this time.
“All of the board members and I live in the Big Walnut community – we will also pay these taxes,” Pollock added. “There’s no reason why this bond issue would be to anybody’s personal advantage if it wasn’t needed.”
Terri Day said the school district couldn’t wait for another election cycle to place a bond issue on the ballot.
“It takes four years to build a high school,” Day said. “Even at the moderate levels we’re going to be out of room. The economy is improving, interest rates are not going to get better, and construction rates are going to get higher. Waiting is going to cost property owners even more money.”
Reporter Lenny C. Lepola can be reached at 614-266-6093