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Coalition angry over school funding offer

COLUMBUS, Ohio – The coalition of schools suing Ohio over the way it funds education isn’t happy with an offer to settle the decade-old lawsuit, House Speaker Larry Householder said yesterday.

The coalition has made a counter-offer, Householder added. He said the two sides were millions of dollars or more apart. “More like billions,” he said.

The state on Feb. 7 made an offer to try to settle the suit, which argues that Ohio’s school-funding system is unconstitutional because it favors rich districts over poor. A court-ordered mediator has until tomorrow to resolve the case or request an extension. Neither the state nor the Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding will discuss details of the offer or the talks, although Gov. Bob Taft said yesterday that the state’s offer involves more than money.

Householder said he was disappointed by the coalition’s reaction. “My understanding is the coalition is quite displeased with the offer that’s been made,” said Householder, a Glenford Republican. “Under these tough budget conditions, I think it was a valiant effort by us to try to put something forward.”

The coalition director called Householder’s comments a serious breach of confidentiality and a mischaracterization of the coalition’s positions.

“I’m totally shocked and appalled that the state is talking about the mediation,” said William Phillis, the coalition’s executive director. “We have been at the table every time discussions were called,” Phillis said. “We have been at the beck and call of the mediator.” The coalition wants to resolve the talks by tomorrow, he said. However, he wouldn’t respond to Householder’s suggestion that the coalition was displeased by the offer, citing the confidentiality rules.

Howard Bellman, the court-appointed mediator from Madison, Wis., said the talks’ ground rules prohibit people from talking about negotiations.

“I’m in the midst of the talks, and I wouldn’t be in the midst of the talks if I thought the talks were over,” he said. “I don’t have any basis for speculating about motives or misunderstandings or strategies. It could be any of those things.”

The state entered the settlement talks in December after it had asked the Ohio Supreme Court to reconsider a September ruling that required the state to spend additional money on schools. Doing so would make Ohio’s school-funding system constitutional, the court ruled.

After that September ruling, however, both the state and the coalition of schools suing Ohio said the estimated additional spending was $1.2 billion a year. The state argued the court had used inaccurate data and that the number should be closer to $400 million.

Taft said the proposals by the state aren’t limited to a dollar amount.

“I think our proposals are probably somewhat broader than that,” he said. “They’re not restricted in that way.” He wouldn’t comment further on details.

“We’re really making our best efforts to put forward what we believe are very constructive proposals to try to resolve this lawsuit,” Taft said. “We certainly encourage the plaintiffs to look very closely and very seriously at those.”

The lawsuit dates to 1991 when the Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding sued on behalf of Perry County schoolboy Nathan DeRolph.

The lawsuit argues that Ohio’s school-funding system is unconstitutional because it relies too much on local property taxes, favoring rich districts over poor.

The Supreme Court twice ruled in favor of the coalition, in March 1997 and May 2000. Its September ruling said the system would be constitutional if the state spent more money on it.

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