Thursday, June 07, 2001

Court puts school-funding plan on fast track

By Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — The Ohio General Assembly took almost a year to develop its $1.4 billion school-funding reform plan.

        The Ohio Supreme Court may take 10 days, or less, to decide if it's constitutional.

        Chief Justice Thomas Moyer and Justice Paul Pfeifer told the Enquirer the high court shortened its appeals process so the justices could rule on the schools plan before it takes effect. The two-year, $1.4 billion spending measure will kick in with the rest of the state's $44.9 billion budget July 1.

        “We can do that,” Chief Justice Moyer said of a quick decision. “It means working in unusual ways, but we can do that.”

        Justice Pfeifer said a quick decision would give lawmakers as much time as possible before the 2002 elections to come up with another plan if this plan is found unconstitutional.

        “If our answer is, "You're constitutional,' then on you go,” Justice Pfeifer said. “If the answer is "You're not,' it comes at a time when the legislature is still meeting and can get right to it.”

        In a 4-3 decision last year, the Supreme Court ordered the state to narrow the gap between rich and poor schools. The high court gave lawmakers and Gov. Bob Taft a June 15 deadline to comply.

        Republican leaders, including Mr. Taft and Senate President Richard Finan, R-Evendale, have recently said this latest round in the school funding battle might get a quick ruling. Mr. Finan based his expectation on the court's decision to speed up the appeals process.

        “We're writing (legal) briefs now and they have to be in next week,” Mr. Finan said. “That says to me that they're going to make a decision PDQ.”

        A January order from the Supreme Court demanded evidence in the case by June 15. Written arguments are due June 18, with oral arguments to follow June 20.

        Bill Phillis, leader of a coalition of schools that has twice successfully sued the state over school funding, said he wasn't surprised by the high court's plans.

        “We kind of anticipated that they were going to have their decision out by then,” Mr. Phillis said. “When the decision is reached won't affect our approach.”

        Justice Pfeifer said a quick decision would make political sense because it would be “as far away from the next election as possible.”

        While Chief Justice Moyer said the schedule was arranged for a quick decision, he said it's also possible it won't happen.

        “The date was scheduled so it would be feasible to do that,” he said. “It's not guaranteed.”


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