Wednesday, November 17, 1999

Taft says school fund oversight is needed


Governor wants court to watch state plan

BY MICHAEL HAWTHORNE
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — Gov. Bob Taft wants the Ohio Supreme Court to continue overseeing the state's new school-funding formula, even though a state lawyer told the court Tuesday that lawmakers have done enough to fix the system.

        Mr. Taft's comments came after the court's seven justices peppered lawyers for the state and a coalition of schools with questions about reforms intended to comply with a landmark 1997 decision that declared the state's funding scheme inadequate and unconstitutional.

        While the governor contends the state has passed the court's test, his support for continuing the judiciary's role in Ohio's school-funding debate contrasts sharply with fellow Republicans who control the General Assembly. GOP legislative leaders bitterly protested the previous ruling and threatened to put a proposal before voters that would have stripped the court of authority over the issue.

        “I think the court needs to maintain continuing oversight over the implementation of the

        new school formula and the school building plan,” Mr. Taft said after speaking to a group of elementary school administrators at a Columbus hotel.

        Asked how long the court's oversight should last, Mr. Taft said he didn't know. “I think until the fundamental pieces are in place,” he said.

        Senate President Richard Finan, R-Evendale, disagreed.

        “I don't think it's fair to say they are going to keep looking over our shoulders,” Mr. Finan said. “The system is either constitutional or it's not.”

        The Supreme Court is expected to rule early next year on the issue. If Tuesday's hearing was any indication, the next decision could be as controversial as the first.

        With school leaders, citizens and the governor's chief of staff looking on in the packed courtroom, the four men and three women justices quizzed both sides for 90 minutes about school reforms adopted and promised by state leaders.

        What has the state done to comply with the court's edict to reduce the reliance on local property taxes to fund schools, Jeffrey Sutton, the state's attorney, was asked repeatedly by the justices.

        “For the poorest districts in this state, whether in terms of buildings or operating expenses, as much as 90 percent of their budgets are now funded by the state,” Mr. Sutton said.

        Nicholas Pittner, an attorney representing more than 500 of the state's 611 school districts, countered that the new funding formula continues to rely primarily on property taxes, which creates disparities between property rich and poor school districts.

        Justice Alice Robie Resnick, one of the four justices who made up the majority in the previous decision, said lawmakers failed to provide funding for new academic and financial standards enacted after the ruling was handed down.

        She joined others who questioned why lawmakers voted to divert nearly $1.7 billion in surplus state funds for tax cuts instead of using it to boost school funding.

        “The General Assembly cut a num ber of taxes, therefore decreasing the available revenue that would have been available to take care of these problems,” said Justice Paul Pfeifer.

        At several times during the hearing, the justices appeared to be grasping for more concrete suggestions about what they should do next.

        Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, one of the dissenting justices in the first decision, asked Mr. Pittner what would satisfy the schools coalition. “Give me a number, a percentage, you'd be happy with,” she said several times during one exchange.

        School leaders aren't looking for specific dollar figures or percentages of funding, he replied, but a new system of funding that guarantees the constitutional right to a “thorough and efficient” education.

        The schools coalition has steadfastly refused to say how much its proposals would cost. They range from expensive reforms such as all-day, every-day kindergarten and smaller class sizes to making sure students have enough scissors, clay and other art supplies.

        “Do you want the funding for every one to be as high as it is in the highest district?” asked Chief Justice Thomas Moyer, who wrote the dissenting opinion in the first decision.

        “No. But "thorough and efficient' is a high standard,” Mr. Pittner said. “It represents the opportunity for every child to compete and succeed. Above that bar there can be disparities based on local voters' choices. Below that bar there is no room for disparities.

        “We're not there yet.”

        The court ordered lawmakers to overhaul a system that had some children attending classes in converted coal bins while counterparts in wealthier districts enjoyed fully equipped biology labs.

        The primary burden for funding education is on the state's taxpayers, not local property owners, the majority decision declared.

        The ruling also decried the abysmal condition of some school buildings and ordered lawmakers to better finance construction and repair needs. And it ordered the state to ensure no school would again have to ration toilet paper, paper clips and chalk.

        Lawmakers responded by sending record amounts of money to fund schools throughout Ohio, Mr. Sutton said. Starting in the poorest districts, nearly $2 billion in state aid has been set aside to repair and replace school buildings during the past three years, more than the total allocated during the previous five decades.

        Mr. Taft has vowed to fix all the state's schools during the next 12 years by spending $10 billion in state funds if local school districts provide $13 billion.

        And for the first time in state history, Mr. Sutton said, the General Assembly has defined what it costs to finance a basic education for schoolchildren.

        “We respectfully submit that whether measured in terms of time, money or the sheer number of laws enacted ... the General Assembly has not only responded to the court's mandate, but has gone far beyond it in several areas,” Mr. Sutton said.

        Justice Douglas called the General Assembly's response to the school building problem “Herculean,” but questioned whether it would have happened without a court order.

        In a possible hint of where the court is headed, Justice Douglas noted the General Assembly adopted a new school-funding system before a 1979 decision in which the court ruled it didn't have any jurisdiction over the issue. Lawmakers gutted the formula two years later, he said.

        “Why would we not say that we should just keep monitoring this?” Justice Douglas said.

        Mr. Pittner asked the justices to name a special master who would oversee the General Assembly's response to the court's first decision.

        Such a request isn't grounded in any legal precedent, said Justice Deborah Cook, one of the three justices who opposed the previous decision.

        Given the often competing needs of 611 school districts in a state that boasts wealthy enclaves and some of the poorest areas in America, many observers think the debate could drag on for years.

        Said Justice Cook: “This never has an end, does it?”

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