Saturday, May 17, 2003

Court ends Ohio school funding case

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins, The Associated Press
and Jennifer Mrozowski, The Cincinnati Enquirer

COLUMBUS - The Ohio Supreme Court on Friday ended the 12-year-old school funding case that led to three rulings over five years declaring the state's educational system unconstitutional. Ohio has spent billions of additional dollars on schools as a result of the rulings.

"The DeRolph case is over," said Kim Norris, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Jim Petro. The case is named for southeast Ohio schoolboy Nathan DeRolph.

The court ruled 5-2 to "end any further litigation" in the case that was first filed in Perry County in 1991 in part because DeRolph had to sit on a floor to take a test because there weren't enough desks.

Several Tristate educators, after hearing of the late-afternoon ruling, said they don't hold out much hope that the Legislature will overhaul the school funding system.

"The Legislature has not demonstrated any significant movement toward complying with what the Supreme Court has said needs to be resolved, such as the relief on property taxes," said David Horine, superintendent of the 3,900-student Mount Healthy School District. "By leaving it totally with (the Legislature), I'm not too sure we can expect to see much of a change."

Reliance on property taxes has been especially troubling for Mount Healthy, where voters this month opposed the district's fourth attempt for an operating levy.

The court had taken itself out of the case five months ago. Friday's decision eliminates jurisdiction "by this or any other court," Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton wrote for the majority.

Justices Alice Robie Resnick and Francis Sweeney dissented without comment.

"The big question is will the Ohio Legislature and will the governor of this state put together a funding system that's constitutional?" said William Phillis, executive director of the group that filed the suit, the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding.

The ruling does not prevent future lawsuits over school funding in Ohio. But those would have to involve new issues not addressed over a dozen years of litigation.

In the 6,200-student Princeton school district, associate superintendent Aaron K. Mackey said his initial reading of the ruling leaves him pessimistic.

"It still leaves in the balance any directive to the Legislature to do anything about it," he said. "It apparently looks like they've directed the Legislature to do nothing. There's no hammer."

The Supreme Court had ruled in December that Ohio's school-funding system remains unconstitutional because it relies too much on local property taxes.

The coalition of schools suing Ohio over the funding system then asked the Perry County court to have Lewis supervise compliance with the high court decision. In turn, Petro asked the Supreme Court to rule that Lewis no longer has jurisdiction.

The court agreed with Petro.

The December ruling was the third time the court said the system creates disparities between rich and poor districts.

For example, Federal Hocking schools in southeast Ohio spent $7,492 on each student last year but raised just 19 percent of the money from local residents. By contrast, Upper Arlington schools in suburban Columbus spent $10,750 on each student and raised 82 percent of the money from local residents.

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