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Published in Print: November 27, 2002, as Changes to Ohio Court Could Sway Finance Ruling

Changes to Ohio Court Could Sway Finance Ruling

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Elections 2002 Ohio's two recently elected state supreme court justices could make a big difference in how the state's long-standing school funding case is resolved, education groups say.

Then again, the current court could make a final ruling in the case even before the court makeup shifts in January as a result of the Nov. 5 elections.

Such uncertainty is hardly new in the tumultuous school finance case.

The lawsuit in question, DeRolph v. State of Ohio, was filed in 1991 by the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy in School Funding. It argues that the state's current system of paying for K-12 schooling violates the state constitution because the method isn't equitable and doesn't provide enough money to ensure a good education statewide. ("School Finance System Upheld by Ohio Court," Sept. 12, 2001.)

"Our mission has been one of securing high-quality opportunities for every kid in the state, regardless of where they live," said William L. Phillis, the executive director of the plaintiffs' coalition. "We're not just looking for a few more dollars. We're interested in the system being overhauled."

The state of Ohio, however, argues that the current system of financing education is constitutionally sound, and it hopes that the court's final ruling will take such a position, according to Kristie Kosdrofsky, a spokeswoman for state Attorney General Betty D. Montgomery.

Given the high stakes, education analysts were keeping a close eye on this month's elections, in which voters determined whether two seats on the seven-member Ohio Supreme Court would be held by Republicans or Democrats. Though the judgeships are nonpartisan, the political parties of the candidates were widely reported leading up to the elections. ("Schools at Issue in Ohio Elections for High Court," Sept. 18, 2002.)

Voters chose Republicans for both seats. That outcome, some analysts say, appears to tip the scales against a court majority that would render a judgment mandating big jumps in state aid to schools.

Philosophical Shift?

A seat being vacated by Justice Andrew Douglas, a Republican who will retire at the end of this year, will be filled by Lt. Gov. Maureen O'Connor, who is also a Republican. Ms. O'Connor had run against Hamilton County Municipal Court Judge Tim Black, a Democrat.

Lt. Gov. Maureen O' Connor

And voters re-elected Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, a Republican, to her position on the court instead of selecting Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Janet Burnside, a Democrat.

The Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy in School Funding had endorsed the Democratic candidates, while business groups, such as the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, had endorsed the Republicans.

Representatives from both the coalition and the chamber of commerce say that the election of Ms. O'Connor to the court likely has shifted its philosophical majority.

Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton

According to Mr. Phillis, a majority of justices on the current court have demonstrated in rulings that they believe the lawsuit falls within the court's jurisdiction and that the state should do more to fund schools. That majority includes Justice Douglas.

But Mr. Phillis believes that Ms. O'Connor will tip the scales in favor of a view among the court's members that the lawsuit isn't within the court's jurisdiction, and thus could sway the new court into dismissing the case.

Keith A. Lake, the assistant director of political and candidate education for the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, agrees that Ms. O'Connor's election means that a majority of justices on the upcoming court believe the court should be less activist than in the past. But he said he wouldn't go so far as to say the result would be a dismissal of the case.

Any discussion of what the new court might decide about the DeRolph lawsuit would be moot if the current court were to resolve the suit before the end of the year. Mr. Phillis says that three of the court's judges have said publicly they hope that will be the case.

In fact, the supreme court has ruled on the case three times.

The first two times, in 1997 and 2000, the court said that Ohio's current education-funding system was unconstitutional, and it gave the state a period of time to fix the problem.

But the state didn't resolve the problem to the court's satisfaction. In its most recent ruling, in September of last year, the court voted 4-3 that the current funding system could be constitutional if the state made changes in the methodology it used to determine per-pupil funding.

The state asked for a reconsideration of the matter, arguing that the court's ruling was based on incorrect information about funding. The court agreed to reconsider its ruling but, before producing another decision, ordered mediation between the two sides in the case. Talks with a mediator broke down in March, and the court has not issued a final ruling.

Mr. Lake said that the state chamber of commerce endorsed the Republican candidates for reasons other than trying to get a particular outcome in the DeRolph lawsuit. He said the chamber doesn't have a particular preferred outcome.

But he added: "The case needs to be resolved before other issues can move forward for the state, because of the additional funds the court may require the legislature to come up with."

Vol. 22, Issue 13, Pages 17,19

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