The state's largest school districts, including Columbus and South-Western, are benefitting from millions in additional state dollars by hiring employees and buying services through an Educational Service Center. State law changed in 2012 to make a share of state education money available to districts with at least 16,000 students if they work through an ESC. But that has also put a strain on smaller districts because lawmakers did not increase overall funding for ESCs, created originally to provide educational expertise and special services to small districts.

The state's largest school districts, including Columbus and South-Western, are benefitting from millions in additional state dollars by hiring employees and buying services through an Educational Service Center.

State law changed in 2012 to make a share of state education money available to districts with at least 16,000 students if they work through an ESC. But that has also put a strain on smaller districts because lawmakers did not increase overall funding for ESCs, created originally to provide educational expertise and special services to small districts.

Before 2012, the law required all but the very largest districts to contract with an ESC. Since the new law, five of the biggest districts in the state have also opted in, receiving extra state funding.

"By my count, the only district left that is not aligned to an ESC is Toledo," after Cincinnati, Cleveland and Akron's city districts joined the program, said Craig Burford, executive director of the Ohio Educational Service Center Association.

But while ESCs statewide now serve about 182,000 more students than they did in 2008, they're getting less money from the state to do it, Burford said.

In 2008, lawmakers gave ESCs about $52 million to serve about 1.37 million kids statewide, or almost $38 per student. This school year, the state has allocated $37.95 million for ESCs that will serve 1.55 million students, or just under $24.50 per student, Burford said. That's an almost 36 percent funding cut per student.

Columbus City Schools opted in two years ago. When it did, the ESC of Central Ohio automatically gained $1.65 million per year in state dollars, based on Columbus' almost 50,000 students. The deal between Columbus and the ESC splits up the money: $1 million of it is dedicated to Columbus and the rest goes to support the ESC, said Scott Varner, a spokesman for Columbus City Schools. Money remaining at the end of the year rolls over and is available to use in later years, he said.

The ESC will use the state money this school year to pay up to 10 Columbus City Schools staff members, according to a spreadsheet the ESC provided. Included on the list of employees is Edward O'Reilly, an executive director over high schools, who is paid $128,551 a year. O'Reilly is one of seven employees whose contracts are set for this school year and are paid a total $492,000. Three other employees' contract renewals for the coming school year are still pending; they were paid a total of $58,459 last year.

The list includes the supervisors over central enrollment and a special-projects coordinator.

"Columbus City Schools contact us if they have a hiring need," Central Ohio ESC spokeswoman Carly Glick said in an email. "The ESC is the employer, but we get evaluation information from the school district. They receive benefits from the ESC. Columbus pays the salary, but they get state funding to offset what they pay."

The only thing limiting the number of employees Columbus can hire through the ESC is the amount of state funding earmarked for district operations, Glick said. "This is part of the shared services we provide."

South-Western schools' contract netted the ESC of Central Ohio about $660,000, money the district is using to hire a testing coordinator and to purchase special-education services that it previously funded with local dollars, said Treasurer Hugh Garside. South-Western uses the same formula as Columbus to divide the proceeds with the ESC, Garside said.

Ohio lawmakers created the forerunner to ESCs - county school boards - over a century ago to help professionalize the state's tiny, rural school districts - think one-room school houses. The ESCs were to provide "supervision," expertise and training.

The ESCs have evolved into support organizations that specialize in providing services under contract with school districts, including special education, pre-K and drop-out intervention.

But Ohio law allows ESCs to provide almost any educational service a district needs, said Tom Ash, director of governmental relations with the Buckeye Association of School Administrators. Directly providing employees "is a way for the district to save some money," Ash said. "It seems to be growing."

If school districts don't like the deal they have negotiated with their ESC, another recent law allows them to shop around every two years, potentially signing new deals with any of the 52 ESCs in the state, Burford said. What those services could be are open to negotiation, he said.

"I would certainly say that there is a lack of standardization across all ESCs and a lack of clear roles and responsibilities," Burford said.

The reason the legislature changed the law in the first place is difficult to gauge, Burford said, but at the time Gov. John Kasich was calling for more shared services and collaboration among schools. "It was also recognition of the political power of the larger districts," Burford said.

It's worth studying whether the change "created relative winners and losers," he said. "I'm not sure we know the answer to that yet."

bbush@dispatch.com

@ReporterBush