Wednesday, June 20, 2001

Aging schools a problem, justice says

Construction plan just a start, Douglas says

By Michael Culp
Gannett Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — A Supreme Court justice who will hear arguments in the state's landmark school-funding lawsuit today says serious problems remain in Ohio's aging school buildings.

        A $10 billion construction plan is a big selling point for majority Republicans trying to convince the high court they've narrowed the divide between the state's rich and poor schools. Justice Andrew Douglas called record amounts already spent to repair and replace school buildings a good start.

        “Today the state is spending over a million dollars a day to try and catch up with that problem,” Justice Douglas said in an interview. “That problem, by the General Assembly's own estimation, is $16.5 billion dollars.

        “Just start thinking how long it will take to solve that,” he said. “But at least we've made a beginning.”

        A Toledo Republican, Justice Douglas was a member of the 4-3 high court majority that struck down the state's school funding system in 1997. A second 4-3 decision he helped write in May 2000 gave lawmakers until last Friday to come up with a new plan.

        Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery will argue the state's $10 billion construction program and another $1.4 billion for school funding satisfies the court. The coalition of more than 500 school districts that brought the lawsuit, will try to show how it fails.

        Justice Douglas' remarks echo similar comments Justice Alice Robie Resnick uttered in April. Another member of the 4-3 schools majority, Justice Resnick identified construction and repair as a lingering concern in a speech before the Ohio Federation of Teachers.

        When told of Justice Douglas' statements, Senate President Richard Finan (R-Evendale) said the state's building plan is fixing the problem over the long term.

        “We have renovated a significant number of schools and we are spending $1.5 million dollars a day,” he said. “I don't know how much more you can do and be responsible.”

        Attorney general spokesman Joe Case said the state's problem with decrepit school buildings, some of which date to the 1930s, didn't sprout up overnight.

        "It's not going to be fixed overnight, either,” he said. “But the state is making a good-faith effort."

        Justice Douglas doubts the Legislature would be spending as much as it is now without prompting from the Supreme Court.

        Lawmakers ignored pleas from school districts beset by crumbling buildings. Many buildings, he said, could not pass state inspections.

        “Whenever that was presented to the General Assembly and the cry for help was given, guess what the General Assembly's reaction was? To exempt every local school district from the fire and building codes,” Justice Douglas said. “Not to repair it, but to exempt them.”

        So why did lawmakers fail to act?

        “Because often it takes more money and more money means biting the bullet and maybe raising taxes,” Justice Douglas said.

        Mr. Finan said lawmakers used to think school buildings were local officials' responsibility.

        “Until the court in 1992 said it was the job of the state to build buildings, we always believed it was the job of the local school boards,” he said.

        State records show Ohio has spent nearly $3 billion of the $10 billion available on school construction since 1998, the largest capital program in Ohio.

        By year's end, the state will help fund 150 building fixes by year's end. But Justice Douglas pointed to a 1997 state report that estimates it will take $16 billion dollars to fix school facilities.

        “What it says to me is here is a problem that the executive and legislative branches have not moved on during the course of the years,” the justice said. “That's why Hamilton, Jefferson and Madison created the third branch of government: to be a check and balance on the other branches just like they are on us.”


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