Decision not guaranted good news for schools

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 13, 2000

Fallout from this week’s Ohio Supreme Court decision has prompted both rallying cries and concern in local and state education circles this week.

Saturday, May 13, 2000

Fallout from this week’s Ohio Supreme Court decision has prompted both rallying cries and concern in local and state education circles this week.

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First and foremost, schools have again won a victory, said superintendent Jim Payne of Dawson-Bryant, the fourth poorest school district in the state. "The good news as far as I’m concerned is the funding system is still unconstitutional," Payne said. "The bad news is the issue of relying upon property tax to fund schools is still not solved and the (state’s) basic aid formula is still inequitable."

But the most concern now centers on this year’s general election, Payne said.

The Supreme Court decided Thursday to maintain jurisdiction in the school funding case, and revisit the issues in June 2001.

Justice Alice Robie Resnick wrote the majority decision as the court confirmed in a 4-3 vote months of speculation by declaring that Ohio’s school funding remains inadequate and unequal across the state – in other words, unconstitutional.

The decision upheld a March 1997 lower court’s ruling. Justices Francis Sweeney, Andrew Douglas and Paul Pfeiffer agreed, while justices Thomas Moyer, Deborah Cook and Evelyn Lundberg-Stratton disagreed.

The decision stated that the legislation enacted since the March 1997 ruling does not go far enough toward providing "the education system guaranteed to Ohio’s 1.8 million children."

"I hate to say this, but it’s a 4-3 decision," Payne said.

If schools do not keep up, Justice Resnick will be defeated when she runs in November and that means the vote on the seven-member court could change, he said.

"They then could come back in June to say the state met the mandate they were given in 1997," Payne said.

Lawrence County superintendent Harold Shafer agreed with Payne, adding that all local district superintendents met this week and agreed as well.

"It was held at the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction this time instead of an overseer like Judge Linton Lewis before," Shafer said. "That could be good or bad depending on the election."

If the justices who made the decision win, then the legislature will scurry to fix what the decision addresses.

Thursday’s court decision, and the 1997 decision for that matter, centered on the school funding areas still in need of work. Chief among those are:

– School funding still relies primarily on an inequitable property tax.

– The school basic aid formula is not based on the cost of an adequate education.

– The state’s increased funding of new school facilities is not enough.

– School district borrowing has not been eliminated.

If the justices, especially Resnick, are defeated in November, "the vote could change and the court could come back saying the state’s done enough," Shafer said.

Yet, the state has not come close to doing enough for today’s schoolchildren, he said.

"We’ve been fortunate here in this county to get new buildings, but our per-pupil expenditure is still far below most areas of the state."

And, like at Dawson-Bryant, schools rely on state funding to take up the shortfall from taxing districts that produce little property tax revenue, which sets the stage for an even bigger problem, Payne said.

Because of a complicated state budgeting error, about $277,000 that Dawson-Bryant had counted on for next school year’s budget will not be there, he said.

Districts in property-tax-rich areas do not rely as heavily on state funding and could afford such a hit, but Dawson-Bryant must absorb the budget loss through absorbing four district positions, Payne said.

It’s clear that state funding formulas – which provide districts with needed revenue to teach, build classrooms, buy books and make sure students have access to successful programs – do not work equally across the entire state, he said.

"My concern is there is another year to look at it but nothing else will happen on the things decided upon in 1997."

The Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, which helped get the original DeRolph vs. the State of Ohio lawsuit into the courts, said Thursday’s decision acknowledged that the state has made efforts to bring the system into compliance with the Ohio Constitution, but it simply has not done so yet.

The Court found that the "most glaring weakness in the state’s attempt to put in place a thorough and efficient system of education is the failure to specifically address the over reliance on property tax. If this problem is not rectified, it will be virtually impossible for the revised school funding system to be characterized as thorough and efficient."

The Supreme Court stated that many of the so-called remedies to the system were "problematic" and some even exacerbated the harm placed on public school children, coalition executive director William Phillis said.

"The evidence was there when this case was filed in 1991, and it is still there glaring at the defendants, they simply did not completely overhaul the system as they were ordered to do," Phillis said. "Now is the time to get all the parties involved together and get this resolved so that school children will no longer suffer."

Shafer echoed the coalition’s opinion, calling the court’s decision a good decision in favor of getting everybody on the same playing field. Cyrus B. Richardson, state board of education member from District 10, which includes Lawrence County, agreed as well in a prepared statement this week.

"We will be pleased with any decision by the Supreme Court that will improve the educational opportunities for students throughout the region," he wrote.

Lawrence County is not without its educational success, but more state help is needed, Shafer said.

At a statewide county superintendents’ meeting he attended this week, proficiency scores became a hot topic.

"We’re talking about four districts here on academic watch, but most of them were talking about how many they had on academic emergency," Shafer said.

Despite lacking money for state-of-the-art technology, better classrooms and more teaching resources, districts in Lawrence County consistently score better than districts in many neighboring southern Ohio counties, he said.

But there’s still a long way to go to cross that playing field now leveled by the Supreme Court, Shafer said.

"The Legislature, the Department of Education, the court, no one has come up with an action plan and that’s what’s needed," he said.

Yes, the decision has rallied supporters and dissenters again in the school funding debate, and the tension has eased somewhat in the Legislature, Shafer said.

"But until somebody puts the plan together, a workable and attainable plan with goals set about what schools are expecting, we won’t see a lot happen."

The Supreme Court’s decision can be found at the court’s Web site – – or at the Web site of the original lawsuit plaintiffs’ attorneys –