Wednesday, April 25, 2001

School plan openness urged


Democrats increase calls for 'place at this table'

By Debra Jasper
Columbus Enquirer Bureau

        COLUMBUS — Ohio Republican leaders continued on Tuesday to try to agree to ways to pay for a new $1.4 billion school funding plan, but as the effort drags on opponents of the plan are stepping up their attacks.

        Democrats in the House and Senate packed into a committee hearing room around noon Tuesday to blast the plan, saying it is being put together behind closed doors with no input from educators or other key constituents.

        “Women and African-Americans must have a place at this table,” said C.J. Prentiss, D-Cleveland, president of the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus. “For three white men to go into a room and decide what is best for us is unconscionable.”

        Ms. Prentiss was referring to the meetings held this month by Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, Senate President Richard Finan and House Speaker Larry Householder. They have spent hours behind closed doors trying to reach agreement on the plan and how to pay for it.

        House and Senate leaders have been taking those ideas back to private meetings with Republican legislators.

        Democrats say the process must be opened up next week, when a bill containing the latest school funding plan is once again expected to start moving through the Republican-controlled General Assembly. Unless changes are made, Democrats say they will be united in voting against the measure.

        Sen. Eric Fingerhut, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, said if the bill is pushed through the House too quickly for public input, Democrats will slow the process in the Senate.

        “We will make sure every (proposed budget cut) is exposed to the light of day,” Mr. Fingerhut said. “I don't care if we are in the Senate Finance Committee 24 hours a day.”

        The General Assembly is under increasing pressure to get the plan approved so it can be sent to the Ohio Supreme Court by June 15. The high court has twice ruled Ohio's school funding system unconstitutional and has given lawmakers the June deadline for getting funding for poor school districts up to par with wealthier ones.

        House Minority Leader Jack Ford, D-Toledo, said one big concern is that Republicans want to cut money for urban school districts. He said he doesn't buy the Republican argument that all schools get more money under the plan, so urban schools do not need special allotments as large as those given out in the past.

        If the current plan passes, “down the road, there will be a lot of these districts back on the levy circuit,” Mr. Ford predicted.

        Cincinnati and Norwood schools would be losers under the proposal. Cincinnati Public Schools officials have said it would mean a 2 percent loss — or $2.8 million — in state funds. Norwood would see a 1 percent cut in state funding, or a loss of $82,699.

        The state's seven other big-city school districts all would see funding increases, ranging from tiny to large. For example, Dayton would get an increase of less than 1 percent, while Cleveland schools would seen an increase of nearly 15 percent.

        Republicans defend the plan, saying only schools with changes in enrollment and property valuation lose money — and they would lose money even without the new proposal.

        Bill Phillis, executive director of the Coalition for Equity and Adequacy, the group that sued the state, said urban schools such as Cincinnati are hurt under the plan because legislators refuse to expand the tax base and spend enough money to make all schools equal.

        “It's the same old approach,” Mr. Phillis said. “They are just shifting the money around and creating a new set of losers and winners.”

       



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