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School funding debated

COLUMBUS, Ohio -Settlement of the state’s decade-old school-funding lawsuit is unlikely if private attorneys representing several state officials participate, Attorney General Betty Montgomery said yesterday.Montgomery asked the Ohio Supreme Court to exclude from the negotiations lawyers representing Gov. Bob Taft and the House and Senate. By law, the attorney general represents all state officials.She said their participation in the court-ordered negotiations would be “highly unusual” and would jeopardize the talks.

Ohio “cannot negotiate against itself to settle a matter in litigation,” Montgomery said in a document filed with the court.

The Supreme Court ruled 4-3 on Nov. 16 that the state should enter settlement talks with the coalition of 500 schools that sued Ohio over the way it funds schools.

The Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding sued in 1991 on behalf of Perry County schoolboy Nathan DeRolph. The group said Ohio’s system for funding schools was unconstitutional because it favors rich districts over poor.

The justices ordered mediation after agreeing to reconsider its third ruling in the lawsuit.

The court ruled in September that the state had to spend more money on its current school funding system to make it constitutional. The court twice before had declared the system unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court identified John Chester of Columbus as the lawyer representing Taft in the talks and Victor Goodman, also of Columbus, to represent House and Senate Republicans.

Montgomery also wants the court to exclude state Sen. Ben Espy, a Columbus Democrat identified by the court as representing House and Senate Democrats.

The three lawyers have previously filed documents supporting the positions of their state government clients on school funding.

“But that doesn’t mean they’re a party having legitimacy under the eyes of the law,” Montgomery said earlier yesterday before filing with the court.

Espy said he agreed with the idea of excluding the other two lawyers but defended his role in the talks. He said Montgomery has not represented the school-funding interests of Democratic lawmakers, in the minority in both chambers.

Goodman said he agreed with Montgomery’s request.

“I think it’s more effective in that regard for them to be at the table,” Goodman said. “Clearly it’s the attorney general’s responsibility.”

Chester said he would do whatever he could to help settle the lawsuit. Taft’s office said the governor agreed with Montgomery’s request.

Columbus lawyer Nicholas Pittner, representing the coalition, said Monday he was unaware of the request. He declined to comment further.

Lawyers for both sides had until yesterday afternoon to comment on a list of nine mediators suggested by the court, or name their own candidates. The court will select the mediator.

Montgomery did not identify a top choice but said the state wants a mediator with experience in law, government and education finance and policy.

The coalition said the mediator should have experience in complex litigation and negotiating major public policy issues. It identified four possibilities: Eric Green, a Boston University law professor; Michael Lewis, a Washington, D.C. lawyer; Francis McGovern, a Duke University law professor; and Linda Singer, a Washington, D.C. lawyer.

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