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Rural schools struggle to catch up

The Associated Press

STEWART, Ohio – Music teacher Therese Lackey spends hundreds of dollars of her own money each year on sheet music and other supplies for her students because of her school’s limited resources.

Tuesday, September 04, 2001

STEWART, Ohio – Music teacher Therese Lackey spends hundreds of dollars of her own money each year on sheet music and other supplies for her students because of her school’s limited resources.

”I’m very, very frustrated,” said Lackey, a singing and instrumental teacher at Coolville Elementary in Federal Hocking schools in southeast Ohio.

”I choose not only to live in a small rural community, I choose to work here, I choose to send my children to school here,” she said. ”Yes, they’re receiving a good education, but it could be a whole lot better and unfortunately it comes down to money.”

The state’s decade-old lawsuit over the way it funds public education started here in rural southeast Ohio. A coalition of school districts sued on behalf of Perry County student Nathan DeRolph in 1991, arguing the state’s funding system hurt students such as DeRolph whose poor districts couldn’t provide as many educational benefits as wealthier schools.

Sources have told The Associated Press the Ohio Supreme Court is expected to rule this week that the state’s latest funding plan is constitutional, provided lawmakers speed up distribution of money to help poor districts.

Earlier this summer, Federal Hocking was the only rural district to file its own opposition to the state’s latest plan with the Supreme Court.

Federal Hocking’s 1,500 students attend classes in two renovated elementary schools and a new middle school funded almost entirely by the state. The district is also set to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in new state money as part of the state’s latest school-funding plan, including $374,945 in 2003 on top of $6.9 million in regular state aid.

District officials say they are grateful for the money but it falls short in meeting all needs.

”New money sometimes has to go to pay for things that have been waiting for a decade, and in this district school buses is one of them, teachers’ raises is another, school textbooks is third,” said Tom McGuire, an Athens lawyer and Federal Hocking school board member.

”We were so underfunded for so many years that prior boards made decisions to not buy textbooks so as to be able to keep teachers in the classroom,” McGuire said. ”Now tell me, that’s a fair choice?”

The new state money misleads local voters, said schools Superintendent Ted Bayat.

”What happens is now people in our community think we’re getting all this extra money when it’s not really accurate. It’s shifting it from the left hand to put it over into the right hand,” Bayat said.

The Federal Hocking district sprawls over about 190 square miles in Athens County, a slice of Appalachia with no industry and few businesses. The largest employer is nearby Ohio University.

Buses travel about 2,400 miles a day over hilly, rural roads. The new $9 million middle school and renovated high school is tucked between forested hills and a farm. The district’s namesake Federal and Hocking rivers meet a few hundred yards below the schools in Stewart, about 75 miles southeast of Columbus.

The district raised $1,339 per student in local taxes last year. Wealthy districts raise much more. Dublin, in suburban Columbus, raised $6,650 per student last year.

The district has underfunded bus purchases by $1.1 million and has spent $1.3 million to comply with a state order to set aside money for textbooks and maintenance, according to a document the district filed with the Ohio Supreme Court as part of the school-funding case.

The biggest concern of districts such as Federal Hocking is that the state still hasn’t changed the school-funding system, said Dick Fisher, executive director of the Coalition of Rural and Appalachian Schools, a group of about 110 schools in Ohio’s 29 Appalachian counties.

”The reliance on the local property tax is still there,” Fisher said. ”To get beyond the minimal per pupil funding level, districts in rural Appalachian Ohio aren’t going to be any better than what the state lets them be.”

Sen. Jeff Jacobson, one of the architects of the state’s plan, defended its approach and effect on districts like Federal Hocking, saying it relieves districts from the burdens of past state mandates that weren’t funded.

”We give them a certain sum of money and say, ‘Here’s what you should be able to do with it,”’ said Jacobson, a Phillipsburg Republican. ”The sum of money we give them should be sufficient to do textbooks and salaries – I cannot speak to what they may have had in any past year.”

It is not the state’s responsibility to fund everything a district wants, Jacobson said.

”We are the funder of last resort, that’s a very important responsibility that the constitution has given us, but with that comes a responsibility to fund not what they would like to have, but what it is they need to have,” he said. ”Districts may have chosen to invest in different ways.”

Some say residents are unlikely to support more local taxes for the district.

”There’s not very many people around here who have got good jobs,” said Cindy Dunfee, 41, a nursing home cook whose daughters attend Federal Hocking schools. ”They have to drive quite a ways with gas prices and everything. I just can’t see more added to it.”

Lackey, 40, said that despite what she has to spend out of her own pocket on supplies, she knows classroom teachers who spend far more. She makes about $38,000 annually with 18 years teaching experience.

”That’s terrible that it all comes down to the almighty dollar, but materials are materials, and they are tangible things and you have to have them to assist the teaching,” Lackey said.