Monday, December 17, 2001

School-funding talks lack focus

Topics under debate unsettled

By Jim Siegel
Gannett Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — Before school coalition leaders and state officials start unprecedented school-funding negotiations, they must first agree about what to argue.

        The Coalition for Equity and Adequacy and state Republican leaders remain far apart on several aspects of school funding. The most basic of the disagreements is what should be on the table.

        In a statement last week, Gov. Bob Taft said he welcomes the opportunity to resolve the few issues “identified in the state's motion for consideration.”

        If state leaders get their way, negotiations will be limited to whether certain schools can be eliminated from the funding calculation and whether any ordered funding fix should be retroactive.

        State officials challenged those issues in asking the Supreme Court to reconsider its Sept. 6 ruling, which would have cost the state another $1.2 billion per year in school aid over two years.

        The court, by a 4-3 vote on Nov. 2, granted the motion.

        “The court said if we could fix those areas, we'd have a deal,” said Joe Case, spokesman for the Ohio attorney general's office.

        But that's not good enough, said William Phillis, executive director of the coalition, which is made up of about 550 schools.

        “We are certainly not going to accept a narrow list of discussion items,” he said.

        Warren Russell, deputy director of the Ohio School Boards Association, said it should only take about one meeting to determine whether negotiations will have any chance at success.

        “Certainly if the state comes in and says, "We are not going to discuss this, that or whatever,' that is not going to bode well for trying to have a good settlement,” he said. “Everything needs to be on the table.”

        That would include issues such as over-reliance on the property tax as a source of funding, paying for special education and more money to close the gap between wealthy and poor districts.

        “Those issues have already been resolved,” Taft spokeswoman Mary Anne Sharkey said.

        To help, the Supreme Court last week named 30-year veteran mediator Howard S. Bellman, a Toledo native now living in Madison, Wisc., to oversee the talks.

        “Part of what goes on in mediation is what we refer to as framing, which has a lot to do with how you characterize what it is you're trying to get done,” Mr. Bellman said. “That's one of the things a mediator can help people with.”


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