Thursday, May 6, 2004

Student undercount has state scrambling for funds

By Amy McCullough
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

COLUMBUS - State lawmakers must find an extra $108 million to fill what some believe is the biggest shortfall in Ohio's school funding history.

The 1.812 million students in Ohio's educational system is roughly 9,000 more than previously estimated, Paulo DeMaria, assistant state superintendent of finance, told the Senate Finance Committee Wednesday.

In the past, budget miscalculations were small enough that state education officials could shift money within the department to make them up. But this year, the deficit is too large and requires a bailout from the general revenue fund.

Susan Tavakolian, executive director of the Department of Education, said this is the first time in her 20 years of education finance that legislative action was needed to cover a shortfall.

"We've never had to come to the legislature to shift money around," she said.

Of the $108 million, $80 million will come from the state's general revenue fund. The remaining $28 million will come from money shifting within the education department.

The shortfall will not require cuts in other areas of the budget, said Tim Keen, assistant state budget director.

DeMaria said one reason for the increased number is that fewer students are going into private schools. According to the state education department, Ohio has 16,000 fewer students in private schools today than two years ago.

Finance committee members also want to be sure the problem doesn't persist in 2005.

"We've got to really get the best handle on this that we can for the next budgeting cycle," Committee Chairman Sen. Bill Harris, R-Ashland said.

DeMaria said two other factors played into the excessive shortfall. Education officials calculated an additional 7,000 special education students who were not accounted for when the budget was built.

Also, the Department of Education still owed $13.5 million from bills accumulated in fiscal year 2003. Surplus money normally available at the end of the year to cover those expenses did not exist because of the budget crunch.

The bill is expected to pass the Senate next week, at which time it will go to the House. Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, called the $108 million shortfall and increased enrollment "good news for the reason that it shows our schools are working harder to make sure kids are in school."

But he did express concern over whether the higher numbers are a result of better attendance or simply more generous estimates by school officials.

The announcement in the Senate Finance Committee came just hours after hundreds of students, teachers and school administrators gathered on the Statehouse lawn protesting the state of school funding in Ohio.

Protesters carried signs calling on legislators to fix the funding crisis in their school systems as about 500 voices chanted "Can you hear us now?" The protest was the second of its kind since March.

Stan Wernz was a superintendent at North College Hill for 13 years. He said he blames the increased number of mandates and state testing requirements on the declining quality of education in Ohio.

Wernz has attended only two rallies in his career, but he said he is frustrated with legislators for denying students their right to a good education.

"Local districts are not benefiting to the same degree that they are reporting," he said.

Former governor and Cincinnati school board member John "Jack" Gilligan said legislators are "violating the constitutional rights of the children and the taxpayers of Ohio." He referenced the four Supreme Court decisions, dating back to 1997, declaring the state educational system unconstitutional.

The rally is part of a movement across the state called Project Chalkboard, which is trying to force legislators to fix the problem outlined by the Supreme Court.

John Gray, a West Clermont Local School District board member, said the rally got people energized to press legislators to fix the school funding system.

"Having been involved with this for a long time, the level of anger is rising," Gray said. "It's rising a lot more and a lot faster."

Jim Siegel and Cindy Kranz contributed to this report.

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