COLUMBUS (WCMH) — In 2017, there are still students in schools across Ohio that must learn in classrooms that have no central air or heat.
Some buildings have walls so thick, Wi-Fi can’t penetrate them, or roofs that leak, putting the ceilings overhead at risk of falling on students.
It is a multi-billion dollar problem that has been addressed for the last 20 years.
In 1997 the Ohio School Facility Commission was started after the State Supreme Court found Ohio had been failing to keep its schools in acceptable condition.
Each budget year, the legislature sets money aside for that commission to dole out to the districts with dire needs and a lack of resources to meet them.
There are more than 500 school districts across the state, and through 2015 nearly half of them have had all of their school buildings built or renovated with money from the commission.
In all, more than 12-billion dollars have been spent over the past 20 years, through the commission.
But it hasn’t been enough.
Half of the state’s school districts still have crumbling schools in need of repair or replacement.
Columbus Alternative High School in Columbus is one of them.
Sophia Kempf is a student at the school and says trying to learn there is no easy task.
“We’re sitting there shivering, which makes you a little bit tired, and then you’re wearing your coat because it’s cold out,” said Kempf.
The school has no central heat ,or air for that matter. When the temperatures rise, students must drink from a water bottle or risk dehydration and passing out.
Kempf says one teacher suffered heat stroke because it was so hot in the classroom.
United States Senator Sherrod Brown says the state legislature has failed its citizens.
“We’ve had a state legislature that, frankly, hasn’t stepped up on education and healthcare; two of its most important functions,” said Brown.
That is why he has introduced federal legislation to step into the gap left by the state.
Brown’s school infrastructure bill would set aside $70 billion dollars for schools across the country to access via grants for infrastructure needs.
“Our schools are woefully underfunded, the legislature hasn’t done its job,” said Brown.
State Senator Randy Gardner, a Republican who represents the 2nd Senate District, says lawmakers are doing everything they can to find ways to help students but isn’t using that as an excuse.
“When it comes to schools, I don’t think legislators ever should be satisfied that everything’s being done that can be done,” said Gardner.
State Senator Michael Skindell, a Democrat representing the 23rd Senate District, is definitely not satisfied with what has been done.
“We are not providing enough dollars for operating expenses and we are really limiting on the construction side the maintenance side for the school buildings,” said Skindell. “It’s strangling the school districts at both ends.”
When he says limiting the construction side of things, Skindell is referring to the School Facility Commission.
It only matches 30% of what the school district raises for their project.
Back to that $12 billion, after the 30% from the state; the people of Ohio ended up paying the balance on all of those projects over the past 20 years by way of levies and bonds.
The Columbus City School District just asked its voters to approve a levy for construction costs, which they did cautiously.
The school district is in the group whose buildings still need to be upgraded; the second half that haven’t had all their buildings built or renovated with commission funding, if you will.
The district’s buildings continue to degrade because they can’t keep up with maintenance costs which would come from day to day funding from the state, which is a different pot of money.
According to the GOP communications department for the State Senate, from 2006 – 2015 per pupil funding for day to day operations at schools increased by 33% from around 9,700 to 13,000.
However, Columbus City Schools has too many kids enrolled and as a result, its funding has been capped.
This year the district is missing out on $83 million; that’s 6,461.5 students that the district is educating for free, in a sense.
Think about that for a moment. A lot of maintenance can be done with $83 million.
The GOP communications department for the statehouse also says funding of schools increased by $900 million in the budget created in the 131st general assembly and another $240 million this year.
But with state funding models changing every few years, Democrats say school districts can’t rely on consistent amounts.
And there is another problem.
The money being used to fund the school facilities commission is running out.
Back in 2007, the state decided to use the tobacco settlement dollars, and Sen. Skindell says those dollars are dwindling.
He says the state will need to find a new source of money for these projects.
Ultimately, whether it is federal money from Sen. Brown’s bill that Columbus Alternative High School uses to renovate won’t effect Kempf.
She’s a senior and by the time all of that happens she will have moved on with her life.
And in that case, she doesn’t care who pays for the improvements; she just wants the kids in the grades behind her to reap the benefits.
“I just want them to be able to focus and do their best, because we couldn’t have that,” said Kempf.