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Published: Friday, 12/13/2002

Statewide property tax is 1 school funding option

BY JAMES DREW
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - A day after a 4-3 majority of the Ohio Supreme Court again struck down the state's school-funding system as unconstitutional, House Speaker Larry Householder said he expects legislators will consider major changes to Ohio's property-tax system.

“We don't need seven justices of the Supreme Court telling us we have problems; we know we've got problems,” said Mr. Householder, a Republican from Perry County in southeast Ohio. “We're going to be out there trying to fix the problems.”

On Wednesday, the court said the funding system remains too reliant on local property taxes, which create inequities between property-rich and poor districts.

The state has tried to close that gap by sharply increasing state aid to public schools, and revising the funding formula to try to equalize funding.

Mr. Householder said he expects debate next year about proposals for a statewide property tax or pooling part or all of business property tax revenue and distributing the money to lower-wealth school districts.

House GOP members explored those ideas in 2001, but didn't know if they would pass constitutional muster because voters already have approved their own local property tax millage rates, he said.

Gov. Bob Taft's staff also considered the pooling of some business property taxes so they could be distributed around the state, but the governor never signed off after several Republican legislators screamed “Robin Hood” two years ago.

House Minority Leader-elect Rep. Chris Redfern (D., Catawba Island) said lawmakers need to look at all options. “We need to address the reliance on the property tax. We could appropriate more money; that is not a solution long term,” he said.

From 1991-1992 to 2001-2002, state spending on the K-12 system has increased from $3.6 billion to $6.5 billion - an increase of 81 percent.

Mr. Taft and legislators also have put into place a 10-year, $12 billion program to renovate and build public schools.

The legislature will start working early next year on the two-year operating budget that starts July 1, but a slumping economy combined with higher expenditures have prompted some to project a $4 billion shortfall.

The state Board of Education gets the first bite at the proposed education budget and last October it proposed that the state spend $8.7 billion in 2003-2004 and $9.7 billion in 2004-2005.

“I feel very strongly that this budget addresses many of the funding challenges put forth by the Supreme Court,” said Susan Tave Zelman, state superintendent of public instruction.

But Tom Mooney, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, said the court has made it clear that the legislature has not corrected the “constitutional defects” cited in its 1997 and 2000 school-funding decisions.

“For the most part, state officials have simply pumped more money through the same funding formula,” he said.

State Rep. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo) accused Republican leaders of ignoring the Supreme Court's decisions since 1997. Ms. Fedor, who will take office as a state senator next month, has floated the idea of pooling growth in business property taxes and distributing them to lower-wealth districts.

“The formula needs to be overhauled. People on fixed incomes can't take much more. I don't believe we should pump more money into the formula,” said Ms. Fedor, a former Toledo Public Schools teacher.

State Rep. Lynn Olman (R., Maumee), who floated a statewide property tax proposal a few years ago that was shot down, said he anticipates the legislature will continue to increase funding for the K-12 system - but not make any major tax system changes.

Mr. Olman knows what the pooling of business property tax revenue would mean to Maumee, where money generated by Arrowhead Industrial Park would flow to school districts with lower property tax bases.

“Communities make investments to attract investment and they should be rewarded. If you pool all of that property tax, those who don't make that investment are rewarded and it's blatantly unfair,” he said.

Mr. Householder said a major issue in Ohio's school-funding debate is the state's diversity.

“We've got urban problems. We've got rural problems. We've got suburban problems. Not all of the suburbs in Ohio are wealthy,” Mr. Householder said.

Now that the Supreme Court has dismissed the school-funding lawsuit brought by a coalition of rural and urban school districts - including Toledo Public Schools - some school officials have said the legislature won't be under the same pressure to increase K-12 funding or make improvements to the funding formula.

Mr. Householder disagrees.

“I don't think we need a gun to our head. Our gun to our head is our constituents, and they're out there saying they want a better system of funding the schools and they want better schools,” he said.



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