Friday, June 16, 2000

Lawmakers, coalition to confer on school funding




By Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — A group of lawmakers searching for a better way to fund schools will meet with the coalition that successfully had the system declared unconstitutional. But not with the coalition's lawyers.

        State Rep. Randall Gard ner, R-Bowling Green, said a special legislative committee hopes to discuss solutions with coalition leaders. The coalition represents most of the state's school districts.

        “The only proviso is that the attorneys on both sides will not be present,” Mr. Gardner said.

        Nicholas Pittner, who represents the coalition, welcomed the invitation, even though he'd be left out.

        “I think the time has come for the litigation to end,” Mr. Pittner said.

        Mr. Gardner is part of a special, 16-member House-Senate education funding re form committee responding to an Ohio Supreme Court decision ordering the General Assembly to fix the way it funds public schools.

        In May, the court ruled that the General Assembly must narrow the funding gap between rich and poor schools, fund a list of unfund ed mandates, try again to define the costs of an adequate education, improve a plan to fix crumbling school buildings, and eliminate a loan fund for districts in financial trouble.

        When asked what it would take to satisfy the high court and how much it would cost, attorneys for the state and the Coalition for Equity and Adequacy had some trouble. With many early estimates suggesting a price tag that could far exceed $1 billion, it's certain that the legislators will, too.

        Sen. Bob Cupp R-Lima, said he wasn't certain if the court wanted the General Assembly to raise funding levels among poor school dis tricts or replace a certain percentage of all school property taxes with state dollars. Jeff Sutton, special counselor to Ohio Attorney General Betty D. Montgomery, said he didn't know either.

        “It's clear the courts said that there is an overreliance on property taxes,” Mr. Sut ton said. “But what it means is difficult for me to get my arms around.”

        Mr. Pittner refused to talk about the cost. Instead, he urged lawmakers to adopt the coalition's four-point plan, which would make the General Assembly identify the elements of a quality education for Ohio's 1.8 million school children before paying for it.

        “This is a case about education opportunities, not tax policy,” Mr. Pittner said. “We need to move forward and solve that problem.”

        With a meeting schedule that extends through August, progress will be slow.

        The committee also is not the only state body searching for a solution.

        Gov. Bob Taft, State Superintendent Susan Tave Zellman and two other commissions will meet and talk about school funding reforms this summer. In addition, officials at the Office of Budget and Management, the Legislative Budget Office and the State Department of Energy already are researching potential funding solutions and costs.

        Although the potential price tag is high, Mr. Taft and legislative leaders have ruled out any tax increases.

       



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