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High Court starts school funding review

The Associated Press

Ohio Supreme Court justices Tuesday questioned whether the Legislature has provided enough money to meet a 1997 court order to fix the way public schools are funded.

Wednesday, November 17, 1999

Ohio Supreme Court justices Tuesday questioned whether the Legislature has provided enough money to meet a 1997 court order to fix the way public schools are funded.

”We did everything we could to respond point-by-point to what the court required,” said the state’s lawyer, former state Solicitor Jeff Sutton. The state is appealing a lower court ruling that could force the Legislature to redo school funding next year.

Justices Francis Sweeney and Alice Robie Resnick peppered Sutton with questions about why the state still relies so heavily on local property taxes, a system the court found created disparities.

But Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer later indicated he saw no constitutional requirement that a particular type of tax be used to fund schools. Justice Andrew Douglas said the reliance on local property taxes might be an unsolvable problem, and he praised the Legislature’s ”Herculean” efforts to build and renovate schools.

Lawrence County superintendent Harold Shafer agreed that schools have received more construction opportunities, but said other legislation like House Bill 650 has hurt school district budgets.

The state allowed more special education spending, but the state’s pot of money remained the same, for example, he said. And, even poor districts must set aside part of their slim budgets now for a "rainy day" fund.

"This could go on for years and maybe never be resolved," Shafer said about the court hearings.

"I would just like to see our kids have the same opportunities as the property-tax-wealthy districts and I think that’s what everybody in the county wants – nothing more, nothing less," he said. "Let’s give our kids the same chance and see how they perform."

Former Dawson-Bryant superintendent Don Washburn, now director of Pilasco-Ross Special Education Center in Portsmouth, said the good that has come from the equity lawsuit still has not met the needs of Ohio schoolchildren.

"Some of the things we have asked for this time, because of the Legislature’s failure to meet (court) mandates, are for the court to set a minimum funding level and the court to appoint a master to oversee the remedy," said Washburn, who has testified in the equity case and before the Legislature.

"We felt it was necessary to ask for that because if that is not granted, then who’s to say this won’t continue as it has in the past and keep ending up in court," he said.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that Ohio’s funding system was unconstitutional because it did not provide a ”thorough and efficient” education for every child.

Justice Paul Pfeiffer suggested the Legislature had failed to meet a deadline set by the court.

”You were given a year. It’s two-and-a-half years later. How much time is still needed?” he asked.

Pfeiffer hammered Sutton on whether the Legislature had met a minimum per-pupil expenditure of $4,269 a year recommended by the state’s own independent expert.

The Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding, which filed the 1991 lawsuit that started the case, wants the Supreme Court to find that the state’s response remains inadequate. The court is not expected to issue a decision until early next year.

Nick Pittner, the coalition’s lawyer, insisted school funding has not kept pace with needs to put modern technology and computers into classrooms.

”Give me a number that you would be happy with,” Justice Deborah Cook demanded. Pittner responded that the coalition was concerned with reaching a level of adequate education, not a funding level.

He said the court could appoint a special master to oversee a remedy. But Cook wondered about the legality of a court-appointed official ordering legislation.

The Legislature responded to earlier court rulings by increasing basic per-pupil funding. It also set aside hundreds of millions of dollars for school construction and passed laws that hold schools and students to higher standards.

But Perry County Common Pleas Judge Linton Lewis ruled in February that the state had fallen short of the Supreme Court order to fix the system of school funding.

The coalition has produced a plan it says would provide an essential education for every student. The plan carries no price tag but includes big-ticket items, such as all-day, every day kindergarten, smaller class sizes and up to 10 days of teacher training every year.

– Tribune staff writer Allen Blair contributed to this story.