HB 145, 135th General Assembly
There is legislation currently pending in the House to clarify that ORC 9.48 applies to construction services. The attorneys here at Ennis Britton frequently hear from superintendents, treasurers, and business managers from around the State that they would like cooperative purchasing to be more accessible for some construction services. This is an opportunity to do just that, so now is the time to contact your representatives to support this bill.
By way of background, cooperative purchasing is a procurement process whereby large purchasing power is leveraged to secure a wider range of vendors and better prices. The contracts available through cooperative purchasing are publicly and competitively secured so the individual district taking advantage of an available contract does not have to go through competitive bidding itself.
In 1997, the General Assembly allowed cooperative purchasing for counties and townships. Then, in 2008, cooperative purchasing was expanded to all political subdivisions of the State, including school districts through section 9.48 of the Ohio Revised Code.
9.48 provides that a school district may acquire equipment, materials, supplies, or services through cooperative (joint) purchasing programs operated by any state or national association of political subdivisions.
Unfortunately, The Ohio Attorney General issued an opinion in 2019 that concluded that political subdivisions could not use cooperative purchasing pursuant to Section 9.48 in order to procure construction services because the statute does not use that term. “If the legislature intended to include “construction services” in R.C. 9.48, it could have used language to do so. R.C. 9.48, however, does not contain the terms “construction” or “construction services.” Consequently, we conclude that the General Assembly did not intend to include construction or construction services among the list of items, which a political subdivision may secure under the purchasing authority described in R.C. 9.48.”
While it is true that an Attorney General opinion is not binding law, school districts are cautioned against using this method or procurement to secure construction services. In the absence of any other interpretation, an auditor or grant coordinator could determine that cooperative purchasing under 9.48 is not a valid method of procurement for construction services using this opinion as support.
This bill would clarify that “services” include “construction services.” This change would grant school districts and other political subdivisions more options, flexibility, and control over their purchasing decisions. The Bill, introduced by representatives Thomas Hall and Brian Lampton, was referred to the State and Local Government Committee on April 28, 2023.
What does this mean for your district?
While caution is warranted about RC 9.48, there are other methods through which cooperative purchasing may be used for improvements. If you have a project for which you are thinking of using cooperative purchasing, contact one of the attorneys at Ennis Britton to make sure you stay in compliance.
As Career Technical Centers (CTC) offer ever-expanding curricula and training in more advanced and technical fields, there may be a need for new space for hands-on learning and training. Perhaps your district is interested in erecting a lab for manufacturing education, or agricultural space for education in farming technology.
Under the law, school districts are “bodies politic and corporate” “capable of…acquiring, holding, possessing, and disposing of real and personal property.” Just like any city, local, or exempted village school district, vocational districts can purchase and lease land for the erection of education facilities. CTCs may also purchase or lease existing buildings and, as needed, renovate such existing spaces for their purposes. Lease-purchase agreements are also permissible for this purpose. CTCs may also acquire ownership of real property by donation or an exchange agreement. (By law, CTCs have all the authority and powers as city school districts with the exception of certain matters specifically address in the Revised Code pertaining to Chapters 124 (civil service), 3317 (School Foundation Program), 3323 (special education), and 3331 (age and schooling certificates)). There are other means by which a CTC could acquire property that occur less frequently, are less desired, and are entirely context based. These are adverse possession and appropriation (condemnation).
There may be instances where a CTC desires to acquire property not to erect a building for use as classroom space but to facilitate the programming of the CTC. In some instances, this may involve students performing work that is within the scope of their particular program but that also contributes to a private venture.
The applicable statutes refer to a board of education using its powers to acquire property for its own purposes, i.e., for the operations of the district in carrying out its educational mission. There is not any express authority in those statutes for a board to acquire property for non-school purposes or to effectuate a purely private development.
However, there are some attorney general opinions, addressing CTCs in particular, that have allowed a CTC to engage in a private venture so long as there is some connection to the curriculum. See 1976 Op. Atty. Gen. No. 76-065 (A CTC may construct and sell single-family residences on school land. Students erected the homes under supervision as part of the curriculum, and not for pay); 1971 Op. Atty. Gen. No. 71-068 (A school may engage and compete in private enterprise, even at a profit, so long as the program is reasonably necessary to the vocational education curriculum); 1971 Op. Atty. Gen. No. 71-026 (Use of school facilities for serving meals and banquets to community organizations is justified as part of the vocational education curriculum).
1981 Op. Atty. Gen. No. 81-093 opines that a CTC may, pursuant to R.C. 3313.90, enter into an agreement with a nonprofit corporation whereby students of the district would construct a house on property owned by the corporation with materials and equipment furnished at the expense of the corporation, provided that such an agreement is reasonably necessary to fulfill the requirements of the vocational education curriculum. Additionally, that opinion holds that a board of education of a CTC may, as part of a vocational education program, purchase land, construct residential dwellings thereon, and thereafter sell such realty.
What does this mean for your district?
Your board is vested with broad powers to acquire property using several different means. The options available should be carefully considered to ensure which is the best approach for any given project or plan. Attorneys at Ennis Britton stand ready to assist you with achieving your goals in this regard.
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted our lives and businesses in ways we never envisioned. The real estate market has certainly not been spared. Office space, hotels, restaurants and retail establishments have been particularly hard hit. Demand for office space is likely to decline given our adaptation to working at home. As of July 30th, the American Hotel and Lodging Association reported that more than half of hotel rooms were empty across the country with many hotels being completely closed.1 Many of our favorite restaurants and retail establishments have also been forced to close during the pandemic. All of this is likely to affect real estate values for years to come.
Starting in January, property owners will have the option to file complaints with their county boards of revision seeking to lower the county auditor’s value assigned to their properties (and their tax bills). We anticipate that many property owner’s will take advantage of this opportunity. However, their complaints may be premature. That is because real estate taxes are paid one year in arrears. Thus, any complaint filed next year is for valuation during the 2020 tax year. By law, boards of revision must establish value next year as of January 1, 2020. As of that date, the COVID-19 pandemic had not greatly impacted our lives or the real estate market. Nonetheless, many property owners will not realize this distinction and will file anyway.
County boards of revision understand and appreciate this aspect of the law. However, the individuals who sit on those boards, which sometimes include elected officials, are often empathetic toward property owners who face significant challenges with their commercial businesses or properties. For that reason, it is not uncommon for boards of revision to grant relief even though they technically should not do so under law. They are easily able to do so when property owners are unopposed.
Faced with similar issues during the great recession, the Ohio Board of Tax Appeals made it clear that general references to decreased real estate values will not be enough to sustain a reduction in property value. In Price v. Summit County Board of Revision, 2012 WL 440783 (February 7, 2012), a property owner sought to reduce the value of his properties due to the recession and foreclosure crisis. The BTA rejected his request because it “has consistently rejected the notion that real property values must necessarily rise or fall commensurate with some preconceived notion of ‘historical trending’ or inflationary/deflationary rates.”
To help ensure county boards of revision uphold the law, school districts are advised to strongly consider filing counter-complaints against requests for reduction that appear unwarranted. Under R.C. 5715.19, boards of education are entitled to notice of all valuation complaints that seek to decrease the value of real property by $50,000 or more. Boards of education have the option to file counter-complaints contesting those decrease requests within 30 days of receipt of that notification.
What this means for your district?
Decreases in value through the county board of revision process directly impact the tax revenue received by school districts. Any decrease in valuation will result in a refund issued to the property owner. Those refunds are directly taken from school funding via the county treasurer settlement statements. We anticipate that school districts will face many decrease complaints next year, some of which are sure to be unwarranted. Ennis Britton attorneys can help school districts determine when it is appropriate to file counter-complaints to contest unwarranted decrease complaints to help maintain the tax valuation of the district.
The Ohio Board of Building Standards has finalized the door barricade device rules mandated by HB 64. Found in the Ohio Building Code, the rules address active shooter drills, emergency situations, and establishes conditions for the use of the temporary locking devices. The rules are effective as of April 18, 2016.
Generally, the building code requires door handles to be accessible, meaning they should not require tight grasping, pinching or twisting of the wrist to operate. The new rules provide an exception to the building code for temporary locking devices. Doors also must require only one motion to unlatch a door, but an exception has been built into the code for barricade devices. The devices may not be permanently mounted to the door. Individual parts of the device, such as bolts, stops, brackets, pins, etc. that don’t prevent ingress or egress through the door may be mounted permanently. If they affect the fire rating of a rated fire door assembly, they may not be permanently mounted.
To use the devices in compliance with the new code, the school district must have:
1. Adopted and filed a school safety plan.
2. The barricade devices may be used only in an emergency or during active shooter drills.
3. Only a trained member of the school staff may use the devices for a finite period of time, as determined by the school administrative authority according to the school safety plan.
4. The district must provide training to school staff on the temporary locking device, keep records of the training, and provide those records to the fire official upon request.
5. The district must provide proof to the building official that the fire and police officials with jurisdiction over the school building have been notified about the placement of the temporary locking devices.
6. The building official will approve the devices upon compliance with all rules, and will note the same on the certificate of occupancy.
Operation of the barricade device may not require more than one operation to be removed after it has been engaged. Two operations are permitted to remove the device only if the building has an automatic sprinkler system throughout the building. The building code notes that the Americans with Disabilities Act may affect the use and operation of temporary locking devices like door barricades, but states that this potential issue is outside the scope of the rules.
There are different vendors selling barricade devices, and not all of them may be compliant with the rules as outlined above. For example, the placement of the device (low, medium, or high on the door) or devices that require more than one motion to remove once engaged may be problematic. Carefully consider the requirements before selecting barricade devices for your schools: we suggest working with your local fire officials. Consult counsel for specific questions.
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.
Stetz v. Copley Fairlawn School Dist., 2015-Ohio-4358
The Ninth Appellate District Court of Appeals has reaffirmed political subdivision immunity for public school districts in a slip and fall case. The Copley Fairlawn School District was sued after a student slipped and fell. The student worked in the office during her study hall. During her office time, the student was directed by a vice principal to go and change the letters on a marquee. The student did so and reentered the building. Forty five minutes after re-entering the building, the student slipped as she began to descend a stair case. The student fell backwards and hit her head on concrete. The student did not recollect any water being present on the floor at the time of her fall.
The school moved for summary judgment on the basis that it was immune from suit under Ohio law. The trial court denied summary judgment, finding that there were genuine issues of fact in dispute for the jury to decide as to whether an exception to immunity applied.
There are five exceptions to political subdivision immunity provided by Revised Code Chapter 2744. If one of these exceptions applies, the school district is not protected by immunity. The exceptions for which political subdivisions (including school districts) are liable for injury, death, or loss to person or property are as follows:
1. The negligent operation of any motor vehicle by their employees when the employees are engaged within the scope of their employment and authority.
2. The negligent performance of acts by their employees with respect to proprietary functions of the political subdivisions.
3. Negligent failure to keep public roads in repair to remove obstructions from public roads.
4. Injury, death, or loss to person or property that is caused by the negligence of employees and that occurs within or on the grounds of, and is due to physical defects within or on the grounds of, buildings that are used in connection with the performance of a governmental function (e.g., a school building).
5. Civil liability is expressly imposed upon the political subdivision by a section of the Revised Code
The student here argued that the buildings and grounds exception (number 4 above) applied. However, the Court of Appeals found that the student had not set forth sufficient evidence that there was a defect in the building where she fell or that the school employees were negligent. Particularly here, the defect would have been that the staff permitted a wet substance to remain on the floor causing a safety hazard. The court found that there was not sufficient information to determine if the floor was even wet at the time she fell, let alone whether a hazard had negligently been permitted to remain. Accordingly the school district was entitled to immunity and the case was dismissed.
Districts should keep in mind that while they may be protected by the immunity grants of Chapter 2744, immunity is not automatic as there are exceptions to the rule.