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Published: Tuesday, 11/14/2000

Taft outlines plan to give schools spending flexibility

BY JAMES DREW
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - The state would require school districts to spend less on building maintenance, textbooks, and other instructional materials under a proposal that Governor Taft announced yesterday.

Mr. Taft also called on the legislature to eliminate the requirement that districts set aside tax dollars in a budget reserve fund. The mandate was a provision of a law that legislators adopted in 1997, saying school districts had to be held more accountable for how they spent tax dollars.

The governor said he did not have an estimate of the amount of state and local tax dollars statewide that would be freed if the legislature adopts his proposals.

Larry Sykes, president of the Toledo Public Schools board of education, said he supported Mr. Taft's package “at first glance.”

“We have a budget reserve of $5 million and if we were no longer required to have it, we could do things immediately, such as reduce class size,” Mr. Sykes said.

Mr. Taft said his proposals address a part of the Ohio Supreme Court decision released in May that accused the legislature of piling “unfunded mandates” onto school districts.

That 4-3 decision - referred to as DeRolph II - was the second since 1997 that said the state's school-funding system is unconstitutional, in large part because of its overreliance on local property taxes.

In a speech yesterday to the Ohio School Boards Association, Mr. Taft said he believes the legislature should act on his proposals by the end of the year.

“We are committed to leaving no stone unturned in addressing the remaining issues identified in DeRolph II so that we have a school funding system that is not only constitutional but also works effectively for every school district in the state,” Mr. Taft said.

Districts are required to spend an average of 3 per cent of their budget on textbooks and other instructional materials.

The governor's proposal would tie the 3 per cent mandate to the amount of per pupil aid that the state guarantees. The result is districts would be required to spend less.

“These changes will result in greater flexibility for districts to ensure that textbooks and instructional materials needs are met,” Mr. Taft said.

The governor wants to make the same change in the amount that districts must set aside for school building maintenance.

He also wants to eliminate the requirement adopted that districts gradually set aside 5 per cent of their budget in a reserve - or “rainy-day” fund.

Instead, school boards would adopt a policy to target how much money should be left over when the budget year ends.

Mr. Taft also said districts facing deficits due to “circumstances beyond their control” should receive state assistance without having to repay it.

Bill Phillis, executive director of the coalition of public schools that successfully sued the state in 1991 over the school-funding system, said Mr. Taft's proposals were modest.

“It is kind of scary. The state continues to tweak the system instead of giving it a systematic overhaul,” he said.

But state Rep. Randy Gardner, the Bowling Green Republican who is co-chairman of House-Senate committee studying school funding, referred to the proposals as “meaningful.”

“We are listening and we are acting,” he said.



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