Why is Superintendent Willis using the future Belle Oaks development as an excuse?

To the Residents of Richmond Heights, Ohio:

It is very rare that a development firm finds the need to address the residents of a community where it wishes to build, therefore, an open letter to the public is very unusual.  Most city officials and residents are more than happy to see new developments, like Belle Oaks.  They welcome the economic city benefits created by such projects.  Despite the goodwill of many, DealPoint Merrill unfortunately finds itself having to explain and defend itself against public accusations which are not only false, but they also point to a more serious situation which the residents of Richmond Heights should be made aware. 

Lately, at every opportunity, Richmond Heights’ Superintendent Renee Willis has publicly stated the yet-to-be-built Belle Oaks project is substantially responsible for the need to increase your property taxes. The claim that a future development that has yet to be built, is somehow responsible for the financial mess Superintendent Willis has helped create is, without question, embarrassingly false.

Superintendent Willis claims that because of the proposed Belle Oaks development, the School District must now put a 5.9 mill operating levy on the November 2020 ballot for residents to approve.  This is after having passed a similar 4.94 mill operating levy just 2-1/2 years ago.  This is where Superintendent Willis’ fabrication falls apart and where the residents of Richmond Heights’ concerns ought to begin. 

In 2017, when the 12.08 mill bond issue/levy was passed (which included the 4.94 mill operating levy), the Belle Oaks project didn’t even conceptually exist.  Superintendent Willis, the School Board and their team of experts determined that the 12.08 mill bond/levy issue would provide sufficient revenues to: (a) build a new high school/middle school, public library and School Board office complex known as the 21st Century Community Learning Center; (b) make needed repairs to the elementary school; and (c) provide sufficient operating revenue for the foreseeable future. 

Now, fewer than 3 years later, Richmond Heights local schools find themselves in a new financial crisis due to Superintendent Willis’ fiscal irresponsibility.  This further resulted in the State of Ohio giving the School District a “D” rating  – all during the entirety of Superintendent Willis’ tenure.  In order to put the School District’s poor performance into context, Richmond Heights local schools rank 582 out of the 608 public schools in the State of Ohio. Only 5% of the public schools in the State have a worse report card. 

As a result, the State of Ohio allows Richmond Heights parents to use “vouchers” to send their children to better schools. Instead of taxpayers using their tax dollars to send their children to Richmond Heights schools, families now have the option to use a portion of their taxpayer dollars to educate their children elsewhere.  While Superintendent Willis bemoans the school “voucher” system as another substantial cause of the School District’s financial problems, the truth is that the “voucher” system would not exist with a passing grade.  

 In addition to this voucher narrative, Superintendent Willis attempts to place blame on the proposed Belle Oaks project as the cause for her newly announced levy this November 2020; a development that has yet to break ground and will not be completed for another 3 years.   Superintendent Willis now publicly blames the proposed Belle Oaks project for the School District’s reason behind raising your property taxes.  This is a deflection of course to the real issues facing the Richmond Heights local school system. 

It is an obvious and brazen effort to “gaslight” the community and divert concerned citizens from asking the tough questions that would reveal the mismanagement of the School District’s funds and operations.  In 2017, the cost of the 12.08 mill levy to the average household resident in Richmond Heights was an approximate $700 per year higher on the promise that this would lead to a “New Day”.  It looks like the promised “New Day” is the same as any other day except for the fact that Superintendent Willis now wants to borrow against tomorrow with no plans to improve her “D” rating today.   It’s time for the residents to say, “Enough!”  And it is time for Superintendent Willis to answer the financial and performance questions about your local school system.  

Superintendent Willis’ call to action to put pressure on City Councilpersons to reject the requested financing is against the best interests of the School District and Community.  Facts are no matter whether the City Council approves or disapproves the Belle Oaks Project, the tax revenue benefits to the School District do not change.  Approval of the financing by the City Council merely provides a higher chance that the Belle Oaks project comes to fruition in the City of Richmond Heights.  Meanwhile, the School District will continue to receive its proportionate share of annual real estate taxes on the increased value of the land commencing at the start of the development.  Superintendent Willis intentionally omits this material fact from the public. 

Despite DealPoint Merrill’s good-faith negotiations with the School District, it is clear  the School District would rather watch the Richmond Town Square Mall continue its downward spiral than proceed with an extensive multi-use redevelopment project that will have far reaching and significant economic benefits.  So why is Superintendent Willis against the proposed Belle Oaks financing?  No one knows.   

At the Virtual Town Hall meeting last week, Superintendent Willis cried, “We need a miracle!”.  The question remains why? What school needs a miracle less than 3 years after passing a huge 12.08 mill levy? There is a much bigger story here.  A story that needs to be investigated.  A story that needs to be told.

At the end of the day, DealPoint Merrill and the “Belle Oaks at Richmond Road” project want to be a partner with both the City and the School District.  We have made a generous offer to the School District, which is much greater than required by Ohio law. Superintendent Willis failed to disclose this fact as well to the public.  This offer was rejected by the Richmond Heights Board of Education and Superintendent Willis. The new Belle Oaks development will bring millions of dollars to the City and the School District, along with jobs, retail shops and restaurants to the residents of Richmond Heights and beyond.  Whether or not the City Council approves the financing, the Richmond Heights schools will receive their tax revenues. 

Respectfully and with much hope for our shared future,

DealPoint Merrill