Governor Strickland’s Ohio school-funding plan faces major revisions

COLUMBUS – The Ohio House plans to unveil a major revision of Gov. Ted Strickland’s school-funding plan today that significantly reduces how much money districts can get under a new formula. The governor’s plan has been criticized for allocating more state money to many of the state’s wealthiest districts, while some of its poorest get less. Strickland, a Democrat from Appalachia, has said he is working to fix the problem. Ohio’s school funding system has repeatedly been declared unconstitutional for relying too heavily on property taxes. Strickland pledged to fix the system while campaigning for governor in 2006. The House plan will reduce a limit on gains in state assistance from 16 percent under Strickland’s plan to just under 2 percent, House spokesman Keary McCarthy told the Associated Press yesterday. ‘We’re bringing it down from the original proposal in an effort to ensure that we have an equitable distribution of state resources to the places where students have the greatest need,’ he said. The governor’s plan and the House’s do not differ on their intent to reduce the local property tax burden on school districts by as much as three mills (or $300 on a $100,000 home) – with the state picking up the difference. But the Democrat-led House is expected to propose spreading that reduction over six years, rather than over two, as the governor proposed, the AP learned from sources close to the negotiations. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the plan has not yet been released. Both changes will pick up revenue House lawmakers need to balance the budget. They are trying to make up for $922 million in federal stimulus money that Strickland’s budget office originally called for distributing through the new state formula. McCarthy said the federal government has confirmed what Strickland’s critics had said: The stimulus funds can’t be used that way and must be distributed using federal guidelines. ‘We’re going to be pulling that out of the funding model, and I think still being able to provide some positive gains in state share to school districts,’ McCarthy said. The House plan would also increase the average annual teacher salary – the figure that is used to help calculate how much the state gives to school districts – from $45,000 to closer to $54,000. The higher number was recommended as more accurate in a recent analysis by the KnowledgeWorks Foundation. Teacher unions had complained that Strickland’s plan underestimated the cost of paying teachers by about 20 percent, leaving school systems around the state underfunded by nearly another $1 billion. Michele Prater, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Education Association, said the state’s largest teacher union was waiting for details of the House plan. ‘This makes a difference to tens of thousands of teachers fearful of losing their jobs,’ she said. In intensive negotiations that continued yesterday, House leaders also pushed for eliminating new minimums proposed by Strickland for school nurses and counselors charged with encouraging more family engagement in school life, the sources told the AP. McCarthy said new district breakdowns would be available at a news conference today.