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Published: Saturday, 11/17/2001

Ohio high court pushes for resolution of dispute over school funding

BY JAMES DREW
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - The Ohio Supreme Court yesterday ordered the state and a coalition of public schools, including Toledo Public Schools, to try to settle a decade-long lawsuit over how K-12 education is funded.

By a 4-3 vote, the court said it will choose an out-of-state attorney to try to mediate the dispute. The ruling states that all issues are on the table.

Twice since 1997, the high court has declared Ohio's school-funding system unconstitutional, saying its reliance on local real estate taxes has caused inequities among property-rich and poor school districts.

But in September, the court ruled that a new funding system would pass constitutional muster as long as the state spends even more on primary and secondary education. Gov. Bob Taft and GOP legislative leaders have said that the price tag was too high: an extra $2.4 billion over two years.

Now, a one-vote majority of the court says a mediator may be the answer.

“We are fully aware that we cannot order the parties to settle,” wrote Chief Justice Thomas Moyer for the majority. “We can only order the parties to accept the opportunity that we are providing to facilitate serious, realistic efforts to finally resolve the issues that separate them.

“If mediation does not produce settlement, we will assume our responsibility to finally resolve the matter,” wrote Chief Justice Moyer, who was joined in the majority by fellow Republicans Andy Douglas, Paul Pfeifer, and Evelyn Stratton.

The three dissenting justices were Democrats Alice Robie Resnick and Francis Sweeney, and Republican Deborah Cook. They are the same three who dissented when the court ruled Sept. 6 that the state's new funding system is constitutional as long as the state provides more money to equalize funding among school districts and to boost per-pupil funding.

At the request of Governor Taft, a one-vote majority of the court agreed earlier this month to reconsider that decision.

Mr. Taft has said the cost of complying with the per-pupil funding mandate is $2.4 billion over two years. The state, saying the court relied in its Sept. 6 decision on erroneous data supplied by the state's largest teachers' union, asked the court to lower what it has to spend on public education.

Yesterday's decision was another sign that there isn't a four-vote majority to order that reduction.

The legislature is working on a bill to eliminate what Mr. Taft says is a projected $1.5 billion shortfall in the state's two-year, $45 billion operating budget.

Mr. Taft said the decision is an “intriguing new development.”

“We don't know if the mediation will be successful, but the case has been continuing for a long time, so we are willing to participate,” he said.

Bill Phillis, executive director of the Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding, said the coalition wants a widespread reform of Ohio's system for financing public education, but is willing to negotiate on the time frame for that to happen.

The coalition, which sued the state in 1991, challenging it's educational funding system, consists of 515 school districts.

“Time is a variable, but the matter of opportunities for children is not something we will compromise on,” he said.

Justice Douglas, of Toledo, wrote that he supported the decision to reconsider the Sept. 6 ruling so there could be another attempt to resolve the issue of how to reduce the funding system's over-reliance on local property taxes.

But Justice Resnick, of Ottawa Hills, said she did not believe that issue could be part of the mediation, given that the high court had voted to reconsider its Sept. 6 decision, which said the state had taken several steps to reduce reliance on local real estate taxes.

“If there is no practical possibility that mediation can lead the parties to a settlement of this dispute, the majority's order does little more than delay the inevitable return of this matter to the forefront of our attention,” she wrote.

Justice Cook, a conservative Republican whose appointment to a federal appeals court has been held up by the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, dissented for a different reason.

“Today's decision to refer this cause to court-ordered, court-supervised settlement proceedings continues to inject this court into matters beyond the scope of the judicial function, thereby ignoring the many errors that we would correct,” she wrote.

Settlement talks could start within a month, after the Supreme Court chooses a “master commissioner” to mediate. The court is giving both sides 10 days to comment on a list of potential mediators.

They are all from out of state and include professor Eric Green, of Boston University School of Law. In 1999, he was named the mediator in the Microsoft Corp. antitrust case.

The Supreme Court will enter an order at the conclusion of the settlement conferences.

The coalition of school districts is represented by the Columbus law firm of Bricker & Eckler. The state is represented by the state Attorney General's office; John Chester, counsel for Mr. Taft; and N. Victor Goodman, who is representing the Senate president and House speaker.

The court majority's decision invited Mr. Taft to take part in the settlement talks.

House Speaker Larry Householder (R., Glenford) welcomed the court decision.

“From day one, the speaker has been a proponent of parties coming together to work out a solution,” said Jen Detwiler, Mr. Householder's press secretary.

Chief Justice Moyer said if the state and the coalition of public schools don't reach a settlement, it's unclear what the next ruling would be.

“As in so many cases, the parties may well find that mediation is the best hope for obtaining results acceptable to all while avoiding untold expense and the continued uncertainty of going forward,” he wrote.



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