Financial woes threaten student safety, court told

By Joshua Benton
Blade Columbus Bureau

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NEW LEXINGTON, O. — Tales of woe filled the courtroom here yesterday as educators representing poor school districts told of collapsing ceilings, unsafe shop classes, and oppressive deficits.

“There are serious safety issues for our children,” said William Phillis, executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding, the group that successfully sued the state over its school-funding formula.

Mr. Phillis is expected to be the final witness called in the hearings that have been held in a Perry County courtroom here for the last two weeks. Judge Linton Lewis is hearing arguments over whether the state has fixed its funding system, as ordered by the Ohio Supreme Court in March, 1997.

Mr. Phillis testified for almost four hours on what he sees as the failings in the reforms Ohio made in the last year. High among them, in his mind: the state’s refusal to spend enough money fixing Ohio’s decrepit school buildings.

State witnesses have testified that Ohio has spent more than $1 billion in the 1990s on school facilities, a 4,000 per cent increase over historical funding rates. But it’s not enough, Mr. Phillis said. He put the facility needs at $16.5 billion.

Using a series of photographs and a videotape shot at schools around the state, Mr. Phillis outlined some of the more egregious problems he has seen. Among them: walls and ceilings near to collapsing; water streaming into buildings during serious rainfall; raw sewage in school rooms, and children having to walk across state highways to go to a cafeteria.

Mr. Phillis cited statistics he said showed that the state had not done what courts ordered, namely, reduce reliance on local property taxes in funding education. He said that since 1991, when the funding suit was filed, the local share of the cost of education has increased, from 50.1 per cent to 51.7 per cent.

He said that education funding has shrunk as a percentage of the state budget since 1975. If that number had been constant, he said, state education spending in the 1990s would have been $59 billion instead of $47 billion.

Earlier, Donald Washburn, superintendent of the Dawson-Bryant school district in Lawrence County told the court of his district’s problems stemming from a lack of money: no foreign languages or computer classes before high school, no honors or advanced placement classes, no junior high science labs. “We are not providing an adequate education,” he said. “We do not have the resources to do so.”

Under cross-examination, Lynn Readey, chief of the attorney general’s education section, pushed Mr. Washburn on his comments, running through the funds the state had given his district, including a 51.6 per cent jump in state funding since 1991 and money for more than 200 computers.

Mr. Washburn responded with a statistic he said showed the state had not done enough: his district’s teachers make $10,000 per year less than the state average.

Cross-examination of Mr. Phillis was to begin this morning.

School-fund plan called no solution; Official: poor districts shortchanged

By Joshua Benton
Blade Columbus Bureau

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NEW LEXINGTON, O. — Ohio’s school-funding plan doesn’t do enough to help poor school districts and it saddles them with unfunded mandates that end up costing money, a school official testified yesterday.

“It’s overwhelming,” said Ernie Strawser, treasurer of the Jackson City School District in southeastern Ohio. “We don’t see it as a solution. I have a tremendous amount of frustration.”

Mr. Strawser was testifying on day seven of hearings in the landmark school-funding case initiated here seven years ago.

A coalition of school districts sued the state, claiming the state’s system was unconstitutionally unfair to poor districts. In a series of decisions, the courts agreed, and the hearings are being held to determine whether Ohio has done enough in the last year to remedy the system.

Mr. Strawser began investigating the new school-funding system when he learned that his district, one of the state’s poorest, would be receiving about as much additional revenue from the reforms as the state’s richest districts would receive.

Jackson City would receive an additional $133 per pupil under the state system. The richest quarter of districts in Ohio would get $127 per pupil.

“I was very concerned for my district,” he said. “These were very small increases for my students.”

When he began looking at district-by-district statistics, he learned that wealth seemed not to play much of a role in how much districts would receive, he said. One very poor district would receive more than $400 extra per pupil, while one in the same economic shape might receive only $37 more per pupil.

On top of the small increases, Mr. Strawser said, the state reforms add millions of dollars of unfunded mandates to district budgets. Those mandates – for things like textbooks, computers, and a “rainy day” surplus fund – are “probably the biggest change since the computer” in running a school district, he said.

The mandates would leave his district with a $2.1 million deficit by 2003, he said.

To avoid that deficit, local taxpayers would have to approve a 4-mill tax levy, he said.

Under cross-examination, state attorneys pressed Mr. Strawser on the numbers in his long-term budget estimates, implying they were unreliable.

They focused on the high level of support they said the state provides Jackson City, which gets about two-thirds of its budget from state funds – a number projected to increase over the next five years.

Meanwhile, the state completed its cross-examination of Kern Alexander, the school-funding expert who had criticized the state plan as “illogical” and “arbitrary” the day before. He continued his attacks, calling the plan “a blind system” and “capricious.”

Under cross-examination, Dr. Alexander was chided for not having sufficiently studied Ohio’s situation.

He responded that, as early as 1994, he had asked the state to study several elements of school cost, but was refused, he said, because officials had decided they would use the funding mechanism preferred by another man, Dr. John Augenblick.

Testimony is expected to continue through Friday. Judge Linton Lewis of Perry County Common Pleas Court is expected to rule in the matter early next year.

Ohio’s new school-funding plan assailed; Expert calls it illogical, arbitrary, easily abused

By Joshua Benton
Blade Columbus Bureau

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NEW LEXINGTON, O. — An expert on the way states pay for their public schools called Ohio’s new plan “illogical” and “arbitrary” and too easy for lawmakers to manipulate.

“The state doesn’t in fact know what it is financing with this new legislation,” Kern Alexander, president of Murray State University, Murray, Ky., said in court testimony here yesterday.

Dr. Alexander was one of three national school finance experts assembled by the state in 1994 to find a new way to finance its schools after Perry County Common Pleas Judge Linton Lewis declared the old system unconstitutional because it is unfair to children in poor parts of the state.

Dr. Alexander spoke at the start of the second week of hearings Judge Lewis is holding to determine if the state has done a good enough job in fixing the system.

Dr. Alexander is to continue his testimony this morning, then face cross-examination by attorneys for the state. Testimony is to continue through the end of this week.

After Judge Lewis makes his decision, the case almost certainly will be appealed by the losing side to the Ohio Supreme Court.

In his testimony, Dr. Alexander ripped into the method the state adopted earlier this year to determine how much it costs, per pupil, to provide a quality education. The number is known as the base cost or the foundation cost.

Under court order, the state has to find out that cost and guarantee it will be provided to all districts, no matter how poor, through state aid.

Most states, Dr. Alexander said, figure out that cost by calculating what a good school has to pay for – things like up-to-date books, good teachers, and safe buildings – and determine a per-pupil cost from there.

Ohio, however, hired Colorado-based consultant John Augenblick last year to figure out its base cost, and he had a different method in mind.

Dr. Augenblick’s idea was, in essence, to work in reverse. Instead of figuring out costs first, he decided to look at districts considered successful and examine how much they spent.

He assembled a complex system of screens and calculations, first determining what exactly made for a “successful” district. He decided on a set of criteria almost exclusively focused on proficiency test scores.

From there, he determined a long list of school districts he did not include in his calculations, including districts that are too rich or too poor and districts that spent too much or too little on administration, maintenance, or pupil support.

After winnowing out all those districts, Dr. Augenblick took an average of the per-pupil costs of those districts remaining. The total, $4,269, was the number he recommended that the state pay.

Dr. Alexander said his colleague’s idea was “novel” but nonsensical. “There is no internal integrity to the process,” he said.

He said Dr. Augenblick pulled out so many districts during his winnowing process that those left were not representative of the state. After the winnowing was complete in Dr. Augenblick’s formula, only 102 of the state’s 611 districts were left.

Because it worked in reverse, the Augenblick formula did not actually determine how much it costs to provide a good education in Ohio, Dr. Alexander argued.

Another problem, he said, is that the formula, because it relies on so many numbers unconnected to resources, makes it easy for someone to manipulate the pro cess to produce a desired result simply by slightly changing a few numbers.

He said the process Dr. Aug en blick devised could be manipulated by lawmakers who were more concerned with spending less money than providing an equitable education.

Indeed, even after Dr. Aug en blick submitted his recommended base cost per pupil – $4,269 – last year, lawmakers tweaked his formula until the per-pupil amount was reduced to $4,063.

Dr. Alexander criticized the formula as too arbitrary and not grounded in the real world. Dr. Augenblick, in testimony last week, said he had “just eyeballed” a chart to determine how many districts to eliminate as too wealthy or too poor for consideration. He said he had not visited any Ohio schools in doing his work.