Friday, April 06, 2001

Resnick explores enforcing directive

School funding ordered

By Spencer Hunt and Travis James Tritten
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — The Ohio Supreme Court could hold the General Assembly in contempt this summer if it decides lawmakers failed to meet its order to fix school funding.

        Justice Alice Robie Resnick, a member of the 4-3 majority that declared the state's school funding system unconstitutional, called contempt an extreme option in the case. Her comments came after a speech Thursday before members of the Ohio Federation of Teachers during their annual convention in Columbus.“There are various things that can be done. They can be held in contempt and other things,” she said. “We do have some power to do things when groups and individuals do not comply with our orders, but it will take all seven of us (on the Ohio Supreme Court) to sit down and decide what should be done.”

        House Speaker Larry Householder, who spoke with OFT members later in the day, called the justice's comments “a serious threat.” He said state government could fall into a crisis if school funding issues are not resolved by the high court's June 15 deadline.

        “I think we're at a stage in this state where the whole thing's come to a head,” Mr. Householder said. “Either we're going to resolve this or we're going to have a fiscal crisis or we're going to have a constitutional crisis, depending on which direction it goes.”

        When asked what contempt meant, Justice Resnick and Mr. Householder gave different opinions.

        “Fines, jail, those are all parts... those are all options,” she said.

        “They could actually not allow us to open schools this fall until we comply,” Mr. Householder said. “I think that's probably, that would be the extreme.”

        About shutting down schools, Justice Resnick said, “I don't think that would be beneficial to anyone.” She then refused to speak further on the subject.

        Both leaders' comments point out the very high stakes in the school funding dilemma.

        In May 2000, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that a school funding solution the state had approved fell short of the mark.

        The high court ordered lawmakers to try again to:

        • Narrow the funding gap between rich and poor schools.

        • Define the cost of an adequate education.

        • Provide funding for new academic and financial standards.

        • Improve upon a plan to fix crumbling school buildings.

        House lawmakers advanced a two-year $3.2 billion plan last month, which appeared to satisfy the coalition of schools that's suing the state. It sank after Gov. Bob Taft threatened to veto a controversial proposal that would place casinos at Ohio racetracks to help raise the needed money.

        Lawmakers in the House and Senate are working on a compromise that reportedly would spend up to $1.4 billion on schools over two years. Mr. Taft reportedly favors a plan that would spend about $900 million.

        Though the legislative plan would spend much less than $3.2 billion, Mr. Householder told union members that some spending levels were close to his original proposal. He also said he believed the legislature could resolve the school funding lawsuit with the money it has on hand.

        During her speech, Justice Resnick identified school construction and repair as a point of concern. She cited the high court decision, which declared it's unconstitutional for schools not to meet state building and fire codes.

        Lawmakers haven't addressed school building and repair issues since they passed a $12 billion plan last year. The program relies on money from the state's tobacco settlement and offers schools matching funds if they can pass construction levies.

        Mr. Householder said lawmakers are considering a plan that would let schools borrow more to get state construction funds. Beyond that, he said there is no way the state could improve all school buildings immediately.

        Kevin Kellems, a spokesman for Mr. Taft, said the $12 billion infrastructure plan is the best way to meet school needs.

        “People are building and repairing schools at a furious pace,” he said. “It's not something you can wave a magic wand at and solve quickly.”

        He declined to say anything about Justice Resnick's contempt comments.
        Justice Alice Robie Resnick spoke to teachers about funding.
        Speaker Larry Householder: Comments are a “serious threat.”


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