By Joshua Benton
Blade Columbus Bureau
NEW LEXINGTON, O. — The consultant Ohio hired to fix its school-funding system testified yesterday that the state has done a good job – even if it hasn’t always followed his suggestions.
“It would have been wonderful if they had taken all my recommendations,” said John Augenblick, who helped redesign how public schools are paid for in more than a dozen states. “But it is my opinion that this is a rational system.”
On the day Perry County’s children started the school year, Mr. Augenblick testified for nearly four hours in the courtroom of Common Pleas Judge Linton Lewis, who declared the state’s school-funding system unconstitutional in 1994 because it is unfair to children who live in poor areas, like New Lexington.
Last year, the Ohio Supreme Court agreed, and now the case is back to Mr. Lewis, who will decide if the changes the state has made in the last year are sufficient.
Mr. Augenblick was hired by Ohio in 1997 to create a methodology for determining what is known as the base-level funding: the amount, per pupil, that school dis tricts get from the state each year. Local districts add to that amount from other fund sources.
Mr. Augenblick created a complex formula that looked at how much money Ohio’s most successful districts have spent in recent years, and used an average of those numbers to recommend a standard base level.
But this year, the General Assembly decided to throw out parts of his calculations and change others, lowering the per-student funding levels by more than $200 a year, from $4,269 to $4,063.
In a January letter, Mr. Augenblick seemed critical of the changes in his formula, saying they were “inconsistent” with a rational funding mechanism if they were made simply to lower costs. But yesterday, he said he was satisfied that the changes made were reasonable and passed constitutional muster.
“People were calling me, saying `They’re getting to a lower number.’ But after I learned what the changes in the methodology were, I felt that they were sound.”
He said he was never under any pressure from state officials to keep costs down, and that he has often testified in court cases that other state’s funding systems are unconstitutional.
Attorneys for the coalition of school districts that brought the original lawsuit have argued the per-pupil funding should be almost a thousand dollars a year higher than they are now.
In cross-examining Mr. Augenblick, coalition attorney Nicholas Pittner criticized the consultant, pointing out that he had never taught in Ohio and only once set foot in an Ohio school building.
Mr. Augenblick will retake the stand today for more cross-examination. Yesterday was the third day of hearings on the matter; they will continue through Friday.