Tuesday, March 13, 2001

House school plan calls for $3.2B hike

Proposal tops Senate, Taft plans by $1 billion a year

By Spencer Hunt and Andrea Tortora
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        COLUMBUS - Facing an Ohio Supreme Court order to fix education funding, House Republican lawmakers unveiled a plan Monday that would spend an extra $3.2 billion on schools over the next two years.

        The proposal, announced by Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, would spend $1 billion more a year than competing plans endorsed by Senate Republicans and Gov. Bob Taft.

        Urban and poor rural school districts would receive the lion's share of the money, while some wealthy suburban districts would see no new funds.

        In Hamilton County, Cincinnati Public Schools would get an extra $27 million. State funding for Indian Hill, Lockland, Princeton and Sycamore schools would not change.

        Mr. Householder predicted the plan would satisfy the state's highest court, which in May ordered the General Assembly to reduce schools' reliance on property taxes as their main source of funding.

        “My first day as speaker I told the people of Ohio that the quality and equality of our public schools is the most important issue facing the state of Ohio,” Mr. Householder said. “Today the members of this House have come together to resolve this issue.”

        Leaders of a coalition of schools that successfully sued the state twice over school funding agreed.

        “We believe that the elements within the House plan are the elements needed to resolve the lawsuit,” said Bill Phillis, director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy in School Funding.

        While that endorsement gives the plan much needed credibility, its future in the Ohio General Assembly is far from clear. Senate Republicans and Gov. Bob Taft would not speak openly about the plan, but officials in both camps questioned how they would pay for it.

        House lawmakers said one option is to put casino-style gambling machines at Ohio's seven racetracks. That could raise up to an estimated $900 million a year. A tougher round of budget cuts and up to $300 million in federal welfare funds also could help pay for the plan.

        Mr. Householder refused to talk about funding Monday, saying that's a problem that will be solved later. He called video lottery terminals one of several options that

        may be examined separately in the state budget process.

        “We can't get all caught up in the debate over how we're going to fund this,” he said. “The important thing is we have a plan.”

        Like the two other funding plans that have preceded it, House lawmakers would increase a minimum amount all schools must spend to provide an adequate education for each student.

        The figure would rise from its current $4,294 per student to $5,409 per student next year.

        The plan would increase funding for urban schools with large numbers of students living in poverty. It would let CPS officials count families that get cash and food assistance as impoverished, instead of counting only those families listed on welfare rolls.

        Special-education funding would increase $250 million over the next two years.

        Mr. Phillis said his group would ask the Ohio Supreme Court to put an end to the lawsuit if the General Assembly passes every provision in the House plan.

        Mr. Phillis said the coalition would ask for a consent decree, a type of settlement in which the justices could still monitor the plan to make sure it's fulfilled.

        Officials in the governor's office raised several questions about funding issues. Spokeswoman Denise Lee hinted Mr. Taft might not support some of the lawmakers' ideas.

        “The governor continues to have reservations about video lottery terminals as a source of funding,” Ms. Lee said. Mr. Taft supports joining a multistate lottery.

        Groups opposed to legalized gambling vowed to step up efforts to convince conservative lawmakers to oppose video lottery terminals at racetracks.

        “This is the worst proposal floated in the General Assembly related to gambling,” said the Rev. John Edgar, leader of the Ohio United Methodist Church's anti-gambling task force.

        In Greater Cincinnati, school officials' reactions ranged from optimistic to skeptical.

        At CPS, district Treasurer Michael Geoghegan said he needs more details to determine if the plan actually would bring a significant increase of funds. The district now spends $8,170 on each of its 42,400 students.

        “I just don't think it's that simple to say we'll do this and it translates to this amount of money,” Mr. Geoghegan said.

        Superintendent Steven Adamowski, who previously worked in Delaware, where state law allows video gambling terminals and slot machines at its two racetracks, said this latest plan should be studied.

        “I thought the governor's plan was very well thought out and a tremendous step forward. He struck the right balance in general increases in student allotments and targeted investments for transportation and other costs,” Mr. Adamowski said.

        The region's richer districts — which would not see any increases under the new funding proposal — say they hope the plan doesn't mean a loss of funds from state or local sources. It's not clear how much wealthy districts could lose compared with plans of Senate Republicans or Gov. Bob Taft.

        Sycamore Schools receive 11 percent of their budget from the state, spokeswoman Krista Ramsey said.

        “We rely very heavily on local funding,” she said. “The hope is that this wouldn't do anything to compromise our local funding.”

        The district spends $8,700 on each of its 6,000 students.

        At Kings Local Schools, Treasurer Mike Mowery worried that the plan might push the district to ask voters for a property tax increase. The district's last tax increase came in 1993. The district spends $7,008 per student.

        “This doesn't sound like they are really trying to resolve the problem,” Mr. Mowery said. “I don't think it was a matter of giving more money to rural and urban districts, but to come up with an equitable number for all students in Ohio.”

        At Hamilton City Schools, Treasurer Bob Hancock said he is wary of using gambling revenues to fund education, even though his district stands to gain millions under the House plan. The 9,381-student district spends $6,195 per pupil.

        “I've never seen the promotion of the lottery or other types of gambling as the solution for school funding problems,” Mr. Hancock said. “How do you tie that type of revenue source to education funding? Is this what we want to teach our kids? I don't think so.”

        Reporter Travis Tritten contributed.


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