Athens waits on state funding to begin construction of new high school

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — Athens High School looks pretty worn and dated compared to other high schools in southeast Ohio, a fact not lost on parents.

A recent post in a Facebook forum for parents in the Athens school district mentioned visiting Logan High School for a soccer game and noted how beautiful the facility is.

Other parents chimed in with similar comments about how much nicer other schools in the area are and wondered when the new high school in Athens is getting built.

The answer: Soon (maybe).

It’s complicated. The district is waiting on state funding to build the new school, and right now Athens is second on the state’s funding list.


Athens Superintendent Tom Gibbs said he expects the district that’s first on the list will get funded in the next year. And then it will be Athens’ turn — unless another district cuts ahead in line.

To make sense of all this, it helps to understand how school construction in Ohio is funded.

School districts are ranked based on their perceived ability to pay for construction costs out of their own pocket. Districts that have less ability to pay are ranked higher and get a higher percentage of the construction costs covered by the state.

The ranking is done using a formula that considers the average property values in a district. Because the tax levies districts use to raise funds for school construction are tied to property values, the purpose of this formula is to make sure poorer districts get higher contributions from the state.

“The underlying objective is to create equitable facilities” among districts, said Dave Hayden, president of the Athens school board.

Property values are only part of the calculation. The state’s formula also considers the number of students in a district. So districts with lower property values and higher student enrollment are going to rank higher, and get a bigger funding match from the state, than districts with higher values and lower enrollment.

And this is a problem for the Athens district. Over the years, property values have climbed as enrollment has declined. Of the 609 K-12 school districts in Ohio, Athens now ranks 526.

“On paper, Athens is a wealthy district,” Gibbs said.

The other school districts in Athens County all rank much higher: Trimble ranks 15, Nelsonville-York ranks 92, Federal Hocking ranks 288, and Alexander ranks 376. With just one exception, Rock Hill in Lawrence County, every school district in southeast Ohio ranks higher than Athens.

The bottom line: “We need to raise much more money locally to get the same facilities” as the other districts, Hayden said.

Empty hallway in a high school
The hallways of Athens High School. [Joseph Scheller | WOUB]
Based on its ranking in 2000, Athens’ state match was 32 percent, meaning the district had to cover 68 percent of its school construction costs. This year, the state match would be just 13 percent, Gibbs said.

Fortunately for Athens, the district is still locked in at the 32 percent state match from 2000, Gibbs said. This is because that’s when the state approved funding for the district’s master plan for its school buildings, which it is still implementing.

For comparison, Trimble got a 92 percent state match for its most recent master plan, Nelsonville-York got 86 percent, and Alexander got 73 percent.

Outside Athens County, New Lexington in Perry County got 88 percent, Meigs Local got 82 percent, Jackson City got 79 percent, Ironton in Lawrence County got 73 percent, and Logan-Hocking got 71 percent.

In 2018, voters in the Athens district approved a levy to raise $60.5 million for school construction. This included demolition and rebuilding of East and Morrison Gordon elementary schools, substantial renovation of the elementary school in The Plains, demolition of West Elementary, upgrades to the middle school, and a new high school.

The cost for all the work done so far has come out of the district’s own pocket. This is because the state match doesn’t come until after the district has spent most of its own funds, Gibbs said.

And this is why the district now has to wait for state funding to build the new high school. After completing most of the other projects on the list, the district now has about $6 million left of the original $60.5 million to spend on the new high school, which will cost substantially more than that.

How much the district gets from the state depends on some other calculations. A district cannot spend whatever it wants on a school and then expect the state to pay its percentage share of that amount.

Instead, the state uses a formula to calculate the total cost of a school that meets certain standards for a certain number of students based on enrollment projections. A district can spend more on a school if it wants more than the state standards, but the state will only match based on its cost projection.

So how much match funding the Athens district gets for the work done already and for the new high school will be based on the state’s cost projections, not how much the district actually spent because it wanted more features and amenities.

Now that the Athens district is second in line for match funding, it shouldn’t have to wait much longer. However, districts in line for funding can step out of line if for some reason they’re not yet ready to proceed with a project and can then step back into line, in their same spot, when they are ready.

So, if another district that was ahead of Athens but stepped out and in the coming months steps back in, it will delay funding for Athens.

Also, the state allocates a certain amount in its budget for school construction, so depending on the amount owed to each district in line, it can only fund so many districts for each two-year budget cycle.

Once Athens gets its money, it’s expected to take about three years for design and construction of the new high school.