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Published: Saturday, 11/25/2000

Bill easing unfunded school mandates questioned


COLUMBUS - Shadyside Local Schools in eastern Ohio had to ask voters for a $450,000 bailout last year to pay for unfunded state mandates.

Lawmakers are considering a plan to relax those financial requirements. However, Shadyside Superintendent Jerry Narcisi is pessimistic about how much help the proposal will give.

“I think it's all window dressing,” Mr. Narcisi said. “There's really no substance to all this. It's not going to solve the problem.”

Education officials who were asked about the plan say it might ease a burden experienced by many districts. They add that it falls short of solving Ohio's school-funding problems.

“I would much rather have seen this piece as part of a total funding package,” said Warren Russell, deputy executive director of the Ohio School Boards Association.

The plan was announced two weeks ago after months of public and private talks by lawmakers. The Republican-controlled Senate passed the proposal 21-12 along partisan lines last week. House lawmakers hold hearings next week, and House Speaker Jo Ann Davidson has promised quick action.

The plan tries to fix mandates for which the state will not pay, or programs that schools must implement without the money to pay for them. The Supreme Court targeted unfunded mandates in its May ruling against the state.

Under a law passed three years ago, school districts must maintain a rainy day fund and set aside 3 per cent of their total budget to pay for textbooks and another 3 per cent for building maintenance.

The proposal eliminates the rainy day fund and reduces the amount districts must set aside for books and maintenance.

Senate Democrats complained they had too little input and the bill is moving too fast.

As lawmakers and Governor Taft took public input on the court's decision this year, fixing unfunded mandates emerged as a mutual priority, said Taft spokesman Kevin Kellems.

“I think it's moving quickly in part because there were a great number of leaders in the legislature who worked hard on it, who spent time as the governor did listening to citizens, and parents, and local school leadership,” he said.

The Ohio Association of School Business Officials, which opposed the creation of the rainy day fund, supported the proposal but wished more was done.

“It's a bit frustrating in the sense that the court said, `Fund the mandates,' and instead of funding the mandates, we're going to relax them,” said Barbara Shaner, an association lobbyist.

Eliminating the rainy day fund will do away with a concern voiced by many school officials, Ms. Shaner added: The prospect of asking voters to pass levies even as districts maintain reserve funds.

Shadyside schools, a 900-student district in Belmont County, asked voters last year to approve a four-year levy raising $450,000 annually to help bring in enough money to pay for the district's unfunded mandates.

Last year, the district had a rainy day fund of $34,000. It also was forced to appropriate $53,500 more for textbooks than it needed and $76,000 more for building maintenance than needed, Superintendent Narcisi said.

It sold the levy to voters by telling them that the state could come up with a more adequate funding system, Mr. Narcisi said.

The proposed legislation “would relieve us some,” Mr. Narcisi said. “It would give us a little more ability on the local level to make local decisions. But literally, it's a drop in the bucket.”

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