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

By Joshua Benton
Blade Columbus Bureau

Page 3

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.