By Corey McMahon

The Upper Arlington School District faces a huge problem—a million dollar problem. According to the law firm Bricker & Eckler, the Ohio Department of Education has changed position on the issue of funding conversion schools, such as the Upper Arlington International Baccalaureate High School and the Upper Arlington Community High School. Such a change could, according to a staff bulletin, cost the school district $1 million.

According to Bricker & Eckler, which described the situation in a January 2010 report, the controversy is caused by wording within section 3314.01 (B) of the Ohio Revised Code, which states, “a community school created under this chapter is a public school, independent of any school district, and is part of the state’s program of education. A community school may sue and be sued, acquire facilities as needed, contract for any services necessary for the operation of the school, and enter into contracts.”

The phrase in question is a community school being “independent of any school district.” To ODE, this means the school must operate in an entirely self-sufficient manner. In recent letters to schools with conversion schools in question, ODE stated what constitutes operation independence.

“Indicators of a conversion school’s autonomous operations include such things as separate facilities, staffs, students, treasurers and governing boards, and whether the day-to-day operations are carried out by an [independent administator],” ODE letters said.

Bricker & Eckler, on the other hand states that the phrase within the Ohio Revised Code simply indicates that community schools have a status of independence as a matter of law.

“Every community school has all of the powers associated with independent entities, including the power to choose with whom to contract,” the report said.

According to a earlier report in Dec. by Bricker & Eckler, the ODE letters laid out a timetable for schools to be in compliance with the law. To do so, the letters asked that schools develop a “corrective plan” within 90 days. The plan should be implemented by July 1, 2010.

Principal Kip Greenhill expressed dismay with the decision by ODE.

“We had these plans approved by [ODE],” he said. “We made it very clear that it would be in the same building as the regular high school, and that was approved.”

Greenhill also stated that compliance might not be possible, especially as early as ODE wants. Compliance would require a new administration, teachers exclusive to the conversion school and separate facilities.

If schools cannot or do not comply with the measures, funding could be pulled. A staff bulletin on the issue stated that the amount of funding that Upper Arlington has received for its two conversion schools totals approximately $1 million.

Bricker & Eckler has laid out a possible scenario if ODE persists.

“In the event that ODE persists in its demands, the conversion schools’ options will be limited,” the Jan. report said. “The schools may choose to modify the manner of their operations, in order to satisfy ODE’s semands; or alternatively, if they believe they either cannot continue to operate on the terms required by ODE (or cannot maintain fiscal integrity and student achievement while operating on those terms), the schools may close. As yet another option, schools may choose to challenge ODE’s new requirements through litigation.”

It remains to be seen whether a settlement between ODE and the school districts in question can be made, or whether the dispute will require legal action. According to Greenhill the issue probably will not be resolved this school year.

“The decision is way down the road,” Greenhill said. “We’ll see how it works out.”