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Ohio Finance Trial Challenges 1979 Court Precedent

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Top school officials in Ohio turned their attention last week to the little town of New Lexington, in rural Perry County, where a coalition of 500 school districts has gone to court to challenge the state's school-finance system.

The trial in Perry County Common Pleas Court, which is expected to last five weeks, is nationally significant not only because of Ohio's standing among the most populous states, but also because the lawsuit represents a direct challenge to a 1979 state supreme court ruling that gave full school-funding authority to the legislature.

"Fourteen years later, that has to be re-examined in light of precedents in other states and the wide disparities in Ohio,'' said Kern Alexander, a professor of education finance at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, who will testify as an expert witness for the plaintiffs in the case.

In its 1979 ruling, the supreme court declared that education was not a fundamental right of Ohio children, and that the judicial system did not have constitutional authority to order the legislature to make changes.

The coalition, on the other hand, argues that the state constitution's promise of a "thorough and efficient'' public school system requires equitable and adequate state funding.

The case is also being closely watched by school-finance observers because the state's disparities in local spending are among the nation's widest. In 1991, per-pupil spending in Buckeye schools ranged from $12,000 to $2,800.

'As Bad or Worse Than Ever'

State officials defending the existing funding system are expected both to refer to the supreme court's strong ruling and to argue that the system has been made more equitable in the intervening years.

But the plaintiffs contend that the gap between wealthy and poor districts has grown.

"It is as bad or worse today than it has ever been,'' Mr. Alexander said.

In Perry County, for example, the schools have slipped despite efforts by local taxpayers to raise rates and ward off program cuts.

In the Southern Local School District in Corning, property values are so low that the state finance system already provides about 80 percent of the district's funding. Nevertheless, local residents said, the district is in poor shape.

"The state is doing pretty well by us, but it allows such wide differences in wealth,'' said William Dunlap, a former teacher and principal who served for 13 years as the superintendent of Southern Local. "It isn't right, because all students deserve an education, and a good one.''

Industry currently is virtually nonexistent in Southern Local, a 90-square-mile area that formerly prospered from a local railroad terminal and coal mines. With their closing, however, many area residents have been forced to drive to other communities to find work.

With a total property valuation of $25 million, a one mill tax increase raises only $25,000.

"That doesn't go very far,'' Mr. Dunlap noted.

Mr. Dunlap, who went into New Lexington last week to observe the opening of the trial, said he and many other local school officials expect that the courts may now be prepared to weigh in on the side of finance reforms.

Several poor schools, analysts said, are surviving largely by tapping the state's loan fund, a guaranteed-borrowing program established by the state to avert school closings. Without substantial finance changes, observers warned, some poor districts may be on the brink of financial ruin.

"Something has to be done,'' Mr. Dunlap said.

At Odds With Cleveland

While the plaintiffs in the Perry County trial, who are known as the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, have pressed urban as well as rural concerns, they have been at odds with a Cleveland-based group that has filed a similar class action.

Indeed, the way for the Perry County trial was cleared only after the state supreme court lifted an injunction ordered by a Cleveland judge.

The Cleveland case is scheduled for trial in June. Cleveland officials have vowed to move forward with their case, which they argue has precedence because it was filed in 1991 and certified as a class action for all of the state's districts before the coalition's case was submitted.

The coalition has not joined the Cleveland litigation, however, in part because members feel that that case might not focus on the circumstances of districts all across the state.

Lawyers for the coalition argue that despite lingering jurisdictional questions, it is better to go ahead and begin challenging a system that they say forces poor districts to settle for overcrowded classes, old textbooks, and dangerous buildings.

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