Ohio’s Controversial Territory Transfer Law

At almost literally the 11th hour in the FY20-21 budget process in late June, the legislature included a provision in the conference committee’s version of the budget bill which provides a much easier route for certain township residents to move from one school district to another. This provision, which had originally been included in the House-passed version of the budget, removed by the Senate and then subsequently added back during the conference committee process, allows residents of a township that is located in more than one school district to vote to move their property from one school district to another.

Whereas existing Ohio law required the State Board of Education to approve the transfer of any territory from one school district to another, the newly enacted legislation allows any number of residents of a township which is located in more than one school district to file a petition with the county board of elections proposing the transfer, with a vote at the next primary, general or special election. The only requirement of the petition is that 10% of the petitioners must have voted in the most recent general election. Crucially, only the petitioners would be allowed to vote at the election on whether the territory transfer should be approved, with a majority “yes” vote required for approval. Other township residents and residents of the school districts that the territory would be transferred from or to are not allowed to vote on the territory transfer.

Additionally, the newly enacted legislation does not establish a minimum number of petitioners required, which means that a single person could successfully file a territory transfer petition so long as they voted in the most recent general election. Furthermore, in the event that there is more than one petitioner, there is no requirement that the petitioners live adjacent to one another, meaning that the territory to be transferred can be a series of unconnected parcels. Imagine a street where residents in every other home wish to be transferred to a different school district. A petition that has each of these houses included would be valid (so long as at least 10% of the signers voted in the last general election), and only those in the proposed transfer area would be allowed to vote.

Two territory transfer petitions were filed in time for the 2020 Primary Election and both would impact the Plain Local School District in Stark County. One petition was filed by a group of eight homeowners located on a cul-de-sac in the Plain District. They have petitioned for their properties to be transferred to North Canton City Schools. However, the first petition filed was by a small group of residents of the Village of Hills and Dales. These petitioners have requested that their territory be transferred from Plain Local school district to the Jackson Local school district. Plain Local, which stands to lose over $600,000 as a result of the territory transfer, has filed suit in a federal court to block the action on the basis that the new process denies them due process and also that it could increase segregation and undermine students’ rights to an equal education.

The fact that the residents of Hills and Dales were the first to exercise their rights under the new law should be no surprise as the State Board of Education blocked a previous attempt by more than 100 Hills and Dales residents to transfer from Plain Local to Jackson Local in 2005. This decision was later upheld by the Ohio Supreme Court. More recently, Hills and Dales village council minutes from February 2018 record the village’s desire for an alternative to the existing territory transfer process.

Finally, the newly enacted law could have a much larger impact statewide. There are 1309 townships in Ohio with a 2010 collective population of almost 5.7 million people – nearly half the state. Furthermore, according to Policy Matters Ohio, over 500 school districts in Ohio share a township with another district, which would make them eligible for the new transfer process. In fact, it has been reported that twelve different petitions have been filed by residents wishing to transfer from the Bowling Green City School District in Wood County.

Based on the above description, it would be difficult to find another piece of legislation passed in Ohio in recent memory as undemocratic as the new territory transfer provision. A Federal Court decision notwithstanding, the only real solution to a law which enables a small minority of voters to unilaterally choose their school district in contradiction to more than 60 years of legally established territory transfer practice is to repeal it. Recognizing the severity of this precedent, the Ohio House recently amended Senate Bill (SB) 89 to place a sunset provision on the new territory transfer law. The sunset provision would effectively repeal the new territory transfer provision on September 1, 2020. However, SB 89 was also tied to the EdChoice voucher debate, and differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill had not been resolved when the legislature recessed in late March in the midst of the Coronavirus health emergency.

Even if SB 89 were passed, the September 1 date still allows those interested in filing petitions for transfer the opportunity to meet the deadlines necessary to be on the November 2020 ballot. Without legislative action, currently, the only other prospect for eliminating this territory transfer provision lies with the fate of the Plain Local federal court case.