Funding case arguments heat up

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 21, 2001

Educators watched with reservation Wednesday as schools again argued before the state’s highest court that Ohio’s funding system remains constitutionally unfair.

Thursday, June 21, 2001

Educators watched with reservation Wednesday as schools again argued before the state’s highest court that Ohio’s funding system remains constitutionally unfair.

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The lead attorney for a coalition of 502 districts that 10 years ago sued the state over the funding system argued Wednesday that nothing has changed since the court first ruled the formula was unconstitutional.

The state defended its latest plan for funding Ohio’s public schools, arguing that legislative changes have met the constitutional standard of a thorough and efficient system.

Attorneys for both sides also fielded questions from justices, who now will review thousands of pages of evidence.

It’s unclear when a Supreme Court decision will be issued, although justices have said previously they would move as quickly as possible.

However, that decision will have a direct bearing on students and teachers in Lawrence and other counties, because changes could mean more money per pupil. Also, educators hope that the court mandates a change in the process used to fund schools.

In other words, if there’s less reliance on local property taxes, then schools will fare better financially because most southern Ohio taxing districts don’t produce enough tax dollars for an adequate education.

The funding issue timeline began in December 1991 when the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding sued in Perry County Common Pleas Court.

Trial over the lawsuit began in October 1993, lasting just over one month.

On July 1, 1994, Judge Linton Lewis Jr. ruled the state system of financing education unconstitutional but that would last for only a year. An appellate court overturned the ruling on Aug. 30, 1995.

On March 24, 1997, the Ohio Supreme Court reversed that appeal, agreeing with Judge Lewis’ ruling.

For the next three years, governors, senators, representatives and state education leaders proposed changes – everything from a sales tax boost turned down by voters in 1998 to using $2.5 billion from Ohio’s tobacco settlement.

On May 11 last year, the Supreme Court again ruled the school funding unconstitutional, and gave the state until this June to fix it.

When that decision came, local school officials declared it a victory even in the face of disappointment over the lack of a state funding fix.

The court protected school districts with its ruling, Dawson-Bryant superintendent Jim Payne said then. Dawson-Bryant is one of the poorest districts in the state.

The bad news? The issue of relying upon property taxes to fund schools is still not solved and the state’s basic aid formula is still inequitable, Payne said.

Coalition attorneys and leaders maintained that same tenant Wednesday in oral arguments and briefs filed with the court.

They argued that local property taxation continues to be a hallmark of Ohio’s school-funding system together with the educational disparities caused by that reliance, news reports said.

To prove it had met court requirements, the state pointed to its additional $1.4 billion spending over the next two years; a $23 billion school building plan; and a new state law that overhauls Ohio’s system of academic standards and proficiency tests.

But in an email sent to Coalition members Wednesday afternoon, Coalition president William L. Phillis described one court justice’s response to the state’s overhaul as "insightful."

The justice put forward a line of questioning that wondered aloud how the state could claim that districts meeting only 20 out of 27 standards (7 out of the 127 districts didn’t even meet 20 standards) were appropriate for use in determining the per pupil base cost, Phillis wrote.

The justice suggested that 20 out of 27 translates to 74 percent or a C grade, so he seemed to conclude that the state’s funding level deserves a C grade, Phillis wrote.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.