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Published: Tuesday, 5/22/2001

TPS a payer, not a player, in coalition

BY TOM TROY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

As the second-largest dues-paying member of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, the Toledo Public School District is helping fund a legal strategy that could lead to a halt to school funds and an interruption of the school year.

The Toledo district pays more than $18,000 a year to belong to the 503-member coalition.

The coalition finances the long-running DeRolph vs. State of Ohio lawsuit that has resulted in two rulings from the state supreme court that the school funding formula is unconstitutional and which is again pending before the state's high court.

Yesterday, William Phillis, executive director of the coalition, said the coalition wants to turn up the pressure on the Ohio General Assembly.

He said if the court rules again in the coalition's favor, the coalition may ask the court not to grant a stay.

That could mean an immediate stop to the flow of state funds.

Although Toledo is the second largest contributor of the coalition, it is not a major player in the strategy.

Mr. Phillis said he is advised by a 90-member steering committee. He said the only member of that committee from the Toledo Public Schools was Jai Norment, an executive director in the human resources office, who no longer is on the committee.

He said Mr. Norment, who could not be reached for comment yesterday, has not been very active.

“We have a committee of 90 steering voting members. We have monthly meetings. I have a weekly report to those steering committee members. We have a daily e-mail to them,” Mr. Phillis said. “We don't go very far afield of what those members are thinking.”

As steering committee members from northwest Ohio, Mr. Phillis named current or retired superintendents from Ottawa County educational service center; Hancock County educational service center; the villages of Paulding in Paulding County and Hicksville in Defiance County, and Jennings Local School District in Putnam County.

He said Joseph Rutherford, the retired part-time lobbyist for Toledo Public Schools, is an “ex officio member.”

Mr. Rutherford said he used to attend every monthly meeting of the coalition, but he retired July 1.

Richard Jackson, executive director of community and legislative services, said he replaced Mr. Rutherford as the district's lobbyist. He said last night he attended one meeting of the steering committee in the fall.

Toledo joined the coalition in 1993, three years after the coalition formed to fight for a change in Ohio's school funding formula.

Toledo has been a regular dues-paying member since then. The rate of dues is 50 cents per student. Toledo paid dues of $18,860 in July to cover this school year, according to district Treasurer David Nissen.

Columbus is the only district in the coalition with more students than Toledo. Cleveland and Cincinnati, the only other Ohio school districts that are larger than Toledo, are not dues-paying members.

Toledo board President Peter Silverman said he is troubled by the coalition's latest announcement.

“To my knowledge we're not consulted on strategy in the lawsuit. It sounds like quite a drastic step to take, and I'd have to take a long look at it to say I'd buy into it,” Mr. Silverman said.

“That seems to me like a pretty radical approach,” Mr. Silverman said. He said that, until now, he was not bothered by the district's low profile in the lawsuit.

Dr. Eugene Sanders, the superintendent, did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

Mr. Phillis said the supreme court issued stays when it ruled against the Ohio school funding formula in 1997 and 2000, and in both cases the “stays have given the state defendants an excuse for delay and ineptness,” Mr. Phillis said.

A refusal to tolerate any more delays would put pressure on the General Assembly and the governor to act quickly to solve the problem.

The coalition supports a lawsuit filed in Perry County in 1991 that claims the system relies excessively on property taxes, leaving property-poor districts unable to afford a quality public education for local children.

Mr. Phillis said the deadline for the coalition to file a brief recommending against a stay is June 18, followed by oral arguments in front of the court on June 20.

If the funding formula is declared illegal, school districts would have to operate on their own funds as long as they could, Mr. Phillis said.

The Toledo district has a $280 million operating budget, and 53 percent of that money is from the state.

Toledo could operate for part of the year on its locally generated funds, business manager James Fortlage said. But he said cash flow would be a problem because the district's local funds come in two chunks, in July and January.

“I'm not sure how long we could operate on our local tax revenues. If that comes to pass, it's going to be a very difficult situation for all parties to work through,” Mr. Fortlage said.

Toledo is the only Lucas County school district in the coalition, according to a list of paid-up members supplied by the coalition.

Other area districts that belong to the coalition include Genoa, Woodmore, Otsego, Eastwood, Northwood, and Rossford.

Otsego Superintendent Joseph Long said a halt to state funds would be one way to get the public's attention to the problem.

“It's unfortunate, but perhaps the only way to get a response,” Mr. Long said. “The bottom line is that it would certainly engage the communities throughout Ohio to talk with their legislators.”

Dennis Mock, superintendent of the Genoa Area school district, said he tends to agree with the coalition's strategy, even though it could mean problems in the coming school year.

“I know we would have money to open the schools, but we would not be able to stay open too long,” Mr. Mock said.



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