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Published: 11/28/2004

Ex-legislator offers elixir for schools

BY STEVE EDER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Former state Rep. Bryan Flannery believes he has the cure for what ails the public school funding system in Ohio.

Mr. Flannery, a Lakewood Democrat, is petitioning ex-colleagues in Columbus to consider a plan that would reduce property taxes by $1.7 billion without increasing the rate of income or sales taxes and force the state to find alternate ways to pay for public education. The Flannery Education Act would also establish a commission to define the costs of educating a child and end school operating levies.

Critics contend the plan is unrealistic and impractical. Still, Mr. Flannery, who said he has obtained about 50,000 petition signatures, has until mid-December to collect nearly 100,000 names. If his petition is successful, state lawmakers will be forced to consider the plan, and it could eventually appear on a statewide ballot.

"The petition not only fixes school funding, but it puts the focus back on the state where it needs to be," said Mr. Flannery, who unsuccessfully ran for secretary of state two years ago. "They are going to say we have a budget problem this year, and there is no way we can do this."

Paul Marshall, the executive director of the governor's task force on school funding, said the 35-member panel has looked at the plan, but decided to move in a different direction. "It was a very different approach," Mr. Marshall said. "If you look at the plan, it calls for no increases in taxes, yet you provide more money. It wasn't clear to us how that was going to happen.

"There were some significant unknowns in the plan."

The petition suggests a series of ways to pay for changes in the funding system, including closing loopholes for professional services, eliminating the property tax rollback, reforming Medicaid, and requiring money from Star Ohio be invested in the state. Each of the options could reallocate hundreds of millions of dollars, Mr. Flannery said.

State Sen. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green) said Mr. Flannery's proposed cuts to better fund education would likely reduce services elsewhere in the state budget.

"I am concerned about attempting to replace all of that property tax revenue with other taxes," Mr. Gardner said. "At the end of the day, education has no more money than it did when the proposal was brought before the legislature."

In 1997, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that the state's system for funding education is unconstitutional because it favors wealthier districts. While lawmakers have taken some steps to improve the system, critics say more work needs to be done to assure equity and proper funding.

Earlier this month, voters defeated about half of the state's 286 local school money issues, causing several districts to consider deep cuts.

Bill Phillis, executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, said his organization supports Mr. Flannery's plan. The coalition, which filed the lawsuit which led to the school funding system being ruled unconstitutional, believes the proposal would fix the main problems outlined by the Supreme Court - overreliance on property taxes and adequate funding levels.

"There's no question it will be a tough sell in the current environment," Mr. Phillis said. "It's a work in progress. It'll take a lot of effort."

Contact Steve Eder at: seder@theblade.com or 419-724-6728.



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