Friday, December 13, 2002

Lawmakers stay course on school fund setup

By Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

COLUMBUS - Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder said Thursday that more work needs to be done on the state's school funding system.

The Glenford Republican stopped short, however, of promising the "complete and systematic overhaul" of the funding formula the Ohio Supreme Court ordered in a 4-3 ruling Wednesday.

"I would say we stay the course as far as the formula is concerned," Mr. Householder said. "I think we make improvements to that formula so that it better reacts to the classrooms."

Those remarks were perhaps the only difference between the speaker and fellow GOP leaders, Gov. Bob Taft and Senate President Richard Finan. Both said Wednesday that a $1.4 billion funding fix passed over a year ago should be considered constitutional until a future court says otherwise.

Their opinions didn't change Thursday even though Supreme Court justices continue to insist the General Assembly is under orders to come up with a new plan.

"It's done. It's done," Mr. Finan of Evendale said of the 11-year-old school funding lawsuit. "I say we have done the best we can, and if we continue on our path, we'll reach success."

Things might have been different if the Ohio Supreme Court had kept jurisdiction of the case and set a deadline for lawmakers to come up with a plan. But Wednesday's ruling simply takes for granted lawmakers will respond to the court's order.

That response may never come. If lawmakers pass something, Mr. Householder said it may not involve any additional money for schools beyond what the General Assembly has already agreed to spend under its current plan.

Lawmakers last year approved a $1.4 billion spending increase in school funding, part of an overall funding fix intended to guarantee that at least $4,949 was spent on every public school student this school year. The plan requires an additional $300 million increase over the next two years to help property poor school districts pay for services that wealthier schools fund through local property taxes.

Besides that, Mr. Householder said he'd like to concentrate on proposals meant to improve teaching practices in classrooms. He didn't provide any details on his idea but said they wouldn't be expensive.

"Some of that doesn't cost a penny," he said.

Such comments continue to trouble leaders of the coalition of schools that sued the state.

Bill Phillis, the coalition director, said his group hasn't ruled out filing a motion asking justices to declare the General Assembly in contempt of its latest order, if lawmakers do nothing.

"I think it's premature to say anything like we might go in that direction," Mr. Phillis said. "We're optimistic that our system of government will eventually work."

Meanwhile, the justices involved in Wednesday's decision continued to batter away at Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery's interpretation of their ruling.

Ms. Montgomery's office, which represents the state, advised Mr. Taft and legislative leaders that the case does not declare the latest funding plan unconstitutional. The attorney general also concluded that Justice Andrew Douglas did not actually join with the majority in demanding a systematic overhaul of the system, because he concurred in the judgment only.

"Anyone who's saying that knows differently if they are a good lawyer at all," Justice Douglas said.

"I understand some of these people don't practice law at all," said Justice Paul Pfeifer, author of the decision. "Certainly the attorney general does."

Those comments earned an angry response from Joe Case, Ms. Montgomery's spokesman.

"Our legal interpretation is based on their written opinion, their written comments in the decision," Mr. Case said. "We don't base our legal analysis, with all due respect, on the comments they make afterwards."

Nathan Leaf contributed to this report.


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