Financial woes threaten student safety, court told

By Joshua Benton
Blade Columbus Bureau

Page 3

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.