On December 30th, 2015, the Ohio Supreme Court unanimously declared that real property owned by a public school district board of education is tax exempt regardless of whether it is currently used for school purposes. Ennis Britton Shareholder Gary Stedronsky represented the Talawanda City School District Board of Education at all levels of appeal, including before the Supreme Court.
The case involved a provision in Ohio law that generally exempts real property owned by a public school district from property taxes, which is codified in Ohio Revised Code section 3313.44. In this case, the Talawanda City School District Board of Education (the “Board”) purchased 154 acres of land to build a new high school. A portion of this land was not needed for the high school and was leased by the Board to a farmer.
In January of 2010, the Board filed an application to exempt all 154 acres from real property taxes. The Tax Commissioner approved the exemption application for all but the portion of the land that was leased to the farmer. The Tax Commissioner concluded that the pecuniary benefit realized by the farmer disqualified the land from tax exemption because the property was not being used for school purposes.
The Board appealed the Tax Commissioner’s decision to the Ohio Board of Tax Appeals (“BTA”), which affirmed the Tax Commissioner’s decision. The Board further appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court was tasked with deciding whether the BTA decision was supported by the language in Ohio Revised Code section 3313.44. The applicable version of section 3313.44 simply states: “Real or personal property owned by or leased to any board of education for a lease term of at least fifty years shall be exempt from taxation.” The Board argued that this statute requires that a board of education merely own real property in order for it to qualify for tax exemption. In other words, there is no requirement in the statute that the property must be used for school purposes in order for the tax exemption to apply.
The Ohio Supreme Court agreed with the Board’s argument and concluded that the property that was leased to the farmer was exempt from taxation regardless of the specific use of the property. The Supreme Court acknowledged that past interpretations by the Tax Commissioner may have correctly interpreted an implied use restriction in the prior version of the statute. However, the Court recognized that the General Assembly chose not to include such a restriction when the statute was amended in 2010 even though it had authority to do so. Therefore, the Court held that the statute does not include an implied use restriction and the Board’s property is entitled to tax exemption even though it was leased to a farmer.
The Court also dismissed the Tax Commissioner’s argument that the Board’s request for tax exemption must be denied on grounds that the Board overstepped its legislative authority by leasing the land to a farmer for a commercial purpose. The Court held that a Board of Education’s property is entitled to tax exemption as long as it meets the conditions of the exemption statute in Ohio Revised Code section 3313.44, which merely requires ownership.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court decision clarifies that a board of education is entitled to a property tax exemption for all real property owned by the board of education regardless of how the property is currently being used. This decision is very favorable to school districts and will be used in the future to support applications for tax exemptions.
Talawanda City School District Board of Edu. v. Testa, Tax Commissioner (Ohio 2015), Slip Opinion No. 2015-Ohio-5450.