Final salvos fired in state school dispute; Opponents blast legislature

By Joshua Benton
Blade Columbus Bureau

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NEW LEXINGTON, O. — The coalition that sued the state over the way it pays for its schools will ask the Supreme Court to take control of the system because it believes the General Assembly can’t be trusted to handle it.

“The time to do the job has come and gone, and the job isn’t finished yet,” said Nicholas Pittner, lead attorney for the coalition.

Mr. Pittner made the statement in his closing arguments on the last day of two weeks of school-funding hearings in Perry County Common Pleas Court.

Mr. Pittner, attorney for the Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding, said he will request that Judge Linton Lewis ask the high court to take several steps:

* Appoint a special master with control over the school funding process.

* Set strict guidelines defining what sort of laws the legislature can pass to reform the system.

* Order the state, on an interim basis, to increase the basic level of funding it guarantees all public school districts.

The increase cited by Mr. Pittner – from $3,851 per pupil each year to $5,051 – could add $2.2 billion in costs annually.

In March, 1997, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that the state’s school funding system was unconstitutional, primarily because it was unfair to poor districts by relying too heavily on local property tax revenue. The court gave the state one year to fix the system.

Judge Lewis first ruled against the system in 1994. The hearings are aimed at determining if the state has met its responsibility under the Supreme Court ruling.

Mr. Pittner said the General Assembly has had 17 months to fix the system but has made only cursory changes.

“Without active direction from the court, there’s no reason to believe that the constitutional harm being done will not continue into the future,” he said.

State Solicitor General Jeffrey Sutton painted a different picture for the court, arguing that the state has vastly increased the amount of money sent to local school districts in the last several years, and covers a large part of local districts’ educational bill.

“We have a new, rational system that is fully funded,” Mr. Sutton said. “It is egalitarian and fair.”

In response to the many images of decrepit school facilities that coalition attorneys have used as evidence of low funding, Mr. Sutton said the state needs time to fix problems, and it is unfair to expect everything to be done immediately.

“These changes take time to implement,” he said. “The General Assembly only had one year.”

Mr. Sutton said the call for a special master is premature and unnecessary, declaring that “this case comes down to trust. Should you trust the state? I think it does deserve the court’s trust.”

Mr. Pittner disagreed, saying that the state’s changes, which Mr. Sutton had called “an experiment,” had been based on “junk science” and that they were nowhere near as extensive as the Supreme Court had required.

“Rather than a complete overhaul, we haven’t even washed the windshield,” he said.

Before the closing arguments, the witness portion of the hearings ended much as it began: with House Speaker Jo Ann Davidson on the stand, defending the job she and her legislative colleagues did.

“The output from our schools was not meeting the needs of today’s world,” she said, describing why the General Assembly made the changes it did.

Ms. Davidson was the first witness called when the hearings began on Aug. 24.

The morning session was taken up by cross-examination of William Phillis, executive director of the coalition that sued the state. Mr. Sutton used a line of questioning common to state attorneys throughout the hearings: running through the litany of state funds Ohio has provided to poor districts, and asking if that money is “a positive development.”

And Mr. Phillis responded as many coalition witnesses have: Yes, that’s a lot of money, but it’s not enough.

With the hearings concluded, the next few months will be taken up by verification of the court transcripts and the writing and rebutting of briefs. Judge Lewis is expected to rule early next year, after which the case will be sent back to the Supreme Court.