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School leaders ready to go to court

School leaders across the state stand ready for a summer court battle, the next chapter in the continuing debate over equitable school funding.

Tuesday, April 10, 2001

School leaders across the state stand ready for a summer court battle, the next chapter in the continuing debate over equitable school funding.

"At this point, we’re prepared to go to court," said Jim Payne, superintendent of Dawson-Bryant Schools and executive committee member of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding.

A school funding lawsuit, known as the DeRolph case, has set the stage for such court battles for years. Each time, judges ruled the state’s educational system unconstitutional, stating the primary problem is Ohio’s over-reliance on property taxes.

Now, each side – those districts suing over unfair funding and the State of Ohio – must file briefs with the Ohio Supreme Court by June 15.

Oral arguments in the case are set for June 20, fast by Supreme Court standards, chief justice Thomas Moyer said last week when justices held court in Ironton.

The court has been trying to expedite the case because of its importance to the General Assembly, Moyer said.

Lawmakers have until July 1 to pass a two-year budget, much of which depends on how that plan is paid for.

"Our plan is to make a quick decision, hopefully by the end of June," Moyer said.

School districts think the decision should be obvious by now, Payne said.

There have been three state school funding plans – one written by the House, one by the Senate and one by Gov. Bob Taft.

Every organization in the state, from the Ohio School Boards Association to the coalition has accepted the House plan in its original form. But it doesn’t appear that plan will be adopted, Payne said.

"If the state is going to provide the standards and put us at levels to succeed, then they need to fund us at that level," he said.

Anything else, the legislature is abdicating their responsibility, Payne said.

Nothing happened after the first DeRolph case, nothing happened after the second, he said.

"I think three strikes and you’re out," Payne said. "If they lack the political will to do what’s right, I think the court needs to mandate what needs to be done."

While the clock ticks toward June’s third round on the DeRolph case, state leaders continue to debate the two-year budget with apparent divisions in the ranks.

Gov. Bob Taft, for example, supports tapping a small part of the state’s $1 billion rainy day fund and a separate Medicaid rainy day fund to make up for budget shortfalls this year and projected shortfalls in 2002 and 2003.

Senate President Richard Finan, on the other hand, strongly disagrees with using the state’s rainy day fund.

Then, there’s House Speaker Larry Householder, who has said he wants a plan by Wednesday that lawmakers can debate after Easter.

A working version of that plan would spend up to $4,800 on each Ohio schoolchild annually, meaning an additional $1.4 billion in education spending over two years.

Taft, whose own education plan called for $808 million in new spending, has repeatedly cited concerns about more expensive plans in the House and Senate.

That kind of political bickering is unfortunate, said Jim Payne, superintendent of Dawson-Bryant Schools and executive committee member of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding.

"This has been going on since 1989," Payne said.

The state’s over-reliance on property tax funding of schools means property-rich districts get richer funding pots and property-poor districts, like Dawson-Bryant, have less to spend, he said.

"Funding for education should not be based on where a student lives."

Also, the state has not addressed phantom revenue or per-pupil funding, despite clear reports more money is needed, he added.

In the Ohio House funding plan – accepted by education organizations around the state – a study of districts meeting state standards showed the districts needed $5,409 per student to meet those standards, Payne said.

"The bottom line is if you know what the standards are, and you know what the per pupil costs are ," he said. "We’ve proven our case twice, it (school funding) is still unconstitutional, and the legislature lacks the political will to do something.

"Shy of anything else, we’ll go back June 15 and plead our case."