Supreme Court ends DeRolph case

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 17, 2003

The Ohio Supreme Court ended a 12-year-old school funding case on Friday, but two Lawrence County educators say the crusade against funding inadequacies must continue.

"Is it worth fighting for?" asked Dr. James Payne, superintendent of the Dawson-Bryant School District. "Sure it is. I am not going to give up."

The high court's decision ended more than 12 years of litigation and debate.

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The Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding filed the case in 1991 on behalf of Perry County student Nathan DeRolph and other economically challenged districts including Dawson-Bryant.

Because his school district did not have enough chairs, DeRolph was forced to take a history test sitting on the floor.

The court case sought to level the state's educational funding system between poor districts and wealthier ones.

"It's a step backward for education," said Harold Shafer, superintendent of Lawrence County schools. "We still have the same problems. The only thing now is we don't have anything pending to get the problems resolved."

Still unconstitutional

Friday's decision does nothing to resolve the issue. In fact, the Supreme Court has declared the educational funding system as unconstitutional on three separate occasions.

Payne said the legislature's inaction on the school funding issue is frustrating.

"We're trying to tell every child that they have the ability to achieve, and then you've got a legislature who says 'well, we don't have the money, so we're going to have to cut you,'" he said. "(But) that's not what the court said."

Payne points to Article 6, Section 2 of the Ohio Constitution and quotes a passage.

"The General Assembly shall make such provisions by taxation or otherwise that it will secure a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the state," Payne read.

"It's a straightforward mandate for a high quality of education," he said. "I think we are sending a bad message now.

"There is an obligation by the legislature to provide for a thorough and efficient system of common schools," Payne said. "I would ask that the legislature reconsider our position. We're asking them to fund the schools so we can provide what the constitution provides.

"Again, that's the reason it's in the constitution, (the authors) didn't want the legislature, when they felt the budget was not there, to cut schools."

A question of location

Payne and others close to the DeRolph case say the real issue is how dependent the current funding system is on local property taxes.

On average, Lawrence County's six school districts generate only about 10 percent of their funding through local sources. By contrast, some suburban Columbus schools can generate more than 80 percent of their funding locally.

The result is a vast difference in the amount of money the districts spend per student. In Lawrence County, most districts spend only the state minimum of approximately $5,000 to $6,000 per student. Wealthier districts can almost double that figure, Shafer said.

"It should not make a difference where a student lives, but in the kind of quality assistance a student has," Payne said. "We still have not gotten that across to the legislators."

Payne said he's heard many people say the poorer districts should just raise taxes to make up the difference. But doing so isn't easy, or fair, he said.

"Adding 1 mil (of property tax) in our district would create about $43,000," he said. "In the wealthier districts, sometimes, 1 mil might create $500,000.

"And, there's a direct correlation between the amount of resources you are given and student achievement," Payne said. "We're trying to be creative, but we only have a certain amount of resources available."

Shafer agreed that Lawrence County schools are squeezing every drop of good from the funds they do have, but that the districts are still limited.

"(Wealthier districts) are able to offer more things, more subject areas than we can, obviously because it costs more money to offer those," he said.

"The bottom line is you try to get kids ready for whatever they want to do, whether it's go to college, technical school or workforce. You try to get them ready. I think we do pretty well."

Did the case solve anything?

The student at the center of the case, DeRolph, is now 27. First-graders in 1991, when the lawsuit was filed, will graduate this year. The DeRolph case has been pending for their entire elementary and secondary education.

So did it accomplish anything?

"It made everyone look at it and made everybody realize there was a problem," Shafer said. "But, it didn't make everybody sit down and solve the problem.

"To my knowledge, the legislators and the governor never sat down, around a table, and tried to fix it. It was always in court."

Payne said one of the biggest benefits of the DeRolph case has been in the area of school buildings and facilities.

After the Supreme Court's first ruling that the system was unconstitutional, lawmakers created the Ohio School Facilities Commission.

Since 1998, the state has put more than $3.5 billion into school facilities programs.

"We have, through the building program, benefited," Payne said, adding that a number of districts have been able to improve their buildings and facilities through the facilities commission.

"And, I think through the lawsuit, we have been able to explain the needs … of just the bad condition that schools were in," Payne said.

Now what?

"We're kind of at the mercy of the Legislature," Shafer said. "We'll see what happens."

Payne said despite the demise of the DeRolph case, the struggle for equal funding will continue.

"We will continue to fight the fight, and we'll continue to bring our message to the legislature," he said.

Payne urges parents and other concerned citizens to join in the issue.

"I'd pick up the phone and write a letter to your senator and representative and say that 'we deserve to have a better funding system,'" he said.

The issue needs quick action to avoid more students being deprived of an equal education, he said.

"We've seen a generation of students who have gone through our system that have not had that benefit. And that's something we cannot give back to them.

"That's a terrible legacy."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.