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Published: Friday, 1/17/2003

School coalition may seek to double dues

BY JAMES DREW
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - The leader of the Ohio public schools coalition that sued the state over its school-funding system says more tax dollars are needed to keep the 11-year legal battle alive.

In a 4-3 decision released Dec. 11, the state Supreme Court repeated rulings in 1997 and 2000 that said Ohio's heavy reliance on local property taxes creates inequities between property-rich and poor school districts. The court majority said lawmakers had failed to accomplish a “systematic overhaul” of the funding system.

But 16 days later, the court unanimously ruled that the state did not have to pay $1.4 million in attorneys' fees to the Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding.

The coalition - which sued the state in 1991 and now has 490 school districts as members - sought the state tax dollars to reimburse itself for legal fees paid to the Columbus law firm of Bricker & Eckler.

School districts pay 50 cents per student annually for membership in the coalition.

Today, the coalition's steering committee will consider asking districts to pay an additional 50 cents per student annually, starting July 1, so the legal battle can continue against the state. The additional charge would be voluntary, said Bill Phillis, coalition executive director.

If all 490 districts agree, $600,000 more a year would flow into the coalition's coffers, said Executive Director Bill Phillis. The coalition also will apply for funding from foundations, he said.

The money would be used to pay legal fees and to show how an overhaul of the funding system would improve educational opportunities, Mr. Phillis said.

“In the states with successful litigation, they have formed an ongoing organization,” said Mr. Phillis, whose annual salary is about $100,000.

In 1998 and 1999, Judge Linton Lewis, Jr., of Perry County Common Pleas Court awarded the coalition $1.4 million for legal work that Bricker & Eckler did from 1991 to 1997. Judge Lewis, a Republican appointed by Gov. Richard Celeste, was the trial court judge in the school-funding lawsuit.

In May, 2002, attorneys representing the coalition asked the Supreme Court to order the state to pay $1.3 million for attorneys' fees to the coalition - for legal work from May, 1997, to May, 2000.

“The state itself has argued to this court that as a direct result of this litigation, Ohio's schools and its children are receiving an additional $2.8 billion in facilities and operational funding with purportedly more money to come,” wrote attorney Nicholas Pittner, of Bricker & Eckler.

He added that “the fees sought in this application represent five hundredths of one percent of the benefits then conferred by this case, amounting to a return of 2,000-1.”

In a Dec. 27 ruling without any explanation, the Supreme Court unanimously denied the coalition's request for $1.3 million in attorneys' fees.

“Our reaction was just one of total surprise,” said Mr. Phillis, a former assistant state superintendent of public instruction.

State attorneys argued that the coalition could not collect because of a 1999 state law change that bars the payment of attorney fees in declaratory judgment actions. Mr. Phillis countered that the Supreme Court's 1997 ruling - which awarded the coalition attorneys' fees - preceded the state law.

Chief Justice Thomas Moyer would not discuss the court's Dec. 27 ruling, an aide said yesterday.

Toledo Public Schools, which joined the coalition a decade ago, paid $18,347 in dues to the coalition this school year, said James Fortlage, the district's treasurer.

Other large districts that are coalition members include Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, Dayton, Youngstown, Canton, and Akron.

The Toledo school board has the final call on whether the district will double its dues paid to the coalition to $36,694 next school year, Mr. Fortlage said.

Board member Terry Glazer said he needs to know more about the coalition's plans and legal strategy before taking a stance.

“On the one hand, we are in a fiscal crisis in our district with some big budget cuts looming. On the other hand, this could be successful in getting equity in how funds are distributed. We have to see what the chances are of success,” Mr. Glazer said.

With ideological control of the Supreme Court potentially shifting because of Republican Maureen O'Connor's victory in November, Mr. Glazer said he was not sure if more legal action by the coalition would be effective.

Mr. Phillis said the coalition's next legal moves are unclear. “We realize we are not going to fare very well in front of the O'Connor court. If there's not a remedy in Ohio, that may be a matter for a federal court,” he said.

Otsego Superintendent Joseph Long said he will recommend to the board of education that the district pay the coalition the extra 50 cents per pupil - increasing to $1,750 the amount of tax dollars sent to the coalition per year.

He noted that Otsego schools will be on the ballot in May to raise the local share for a $25.5 million school building project - with the state set to pick up 55 percent of the cost.

“Quite honestly, I doubt the school facilities program would exist if not for DeRolph,” said Mr. Long, referring to the school-funding lawsuit, DeRolph vs. state of Ohio. “That's millions of dollars, compared to what we have contributed to the coalition.”



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