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Published in Print: March 19, 2003, as School Aid Is Casualty Of Ohio's Budget War

School Aid Is Casualty Of Ohio's Budget War

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A standoff among Ohio's Republican state leaders has left the state's schools grappling with a $90 million budget cut.

Gov. Bob Taft, a Republican, warned the GOP-controlled legislature in January that, because of declining revenues, Ohio faced a $720 million budget gap in the fiscal year that ends June 30.

To make up the shortfall, he gave the lawmakers an ultimatum: Increase revenue by raising taxes on cigarettes and beer, or deal with a $136 million reduction in state aid to public schools.

Many Republican legislators, some of whom have pledged not to raise taxes, balked. They also disputed the governor's financial forecast, saying instead that the gap was $651 million.

The legislature passed a budget- reduction bill last month that protected education aid while slashing some $590 million from the state's $23 billion fiscal 2003 budget.

Gov. Taft, who was elected to a second term in November, scolded lawmakers and then followed through on his threat. First, he vetoed a provision that had barred him from cutting education spending. Next, he cut $100 million from K-12 education, including $90 million in state aid to schools and $10 million in spending for the state department of education.

Another $42.6 million was struck from higher education, drug- and alcohol-treatment services, job- creation programs, and a program for senior citizens. With those changes, he signed the budget-reduction bill March 7.

"I take no pleasure in making these painful budget reductions," the governor said in a news release. "But the legislature has given me no other option."

Tax Resistance

With only four months left in the fiscal year, Cleveland's public schools are facing the steepest cuts in Ohio—$4 million out of the district's $375 million in state aid.

Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the 77,000- student district's chief executive officer, said labor unions were looking for savings, and summer school would likely be scaled back.

"I thought there would be room for compromise," she said of the budget negotiations. "Cigarettes and beer are far better than chalk and textbooks."

The GOP may control the governorship and the legislature, but a small group of "ultra-conservative" young Republicans led the push to block the tax increase, said Michael Kline, an associate professor of history at the Zanesville campus of Ohio University. "It's basically a problem of their own party, which has been fragmented into moderates who understand the bigger picture and narrow-minded conservatives," he said.

But many Democrats, who were branded "tax-and-spend liberals" during the last election, didn't back the tax increases, he noted.

Orest Holubec, the governor's press secretary, disputes charges that Mr. Taft was trying to intimidate the legislature with his grim budget projections. Instead, he said, the governor was simply warning lawmakers and preparing school districts for severe cuts.

Mr. Taft is proposing additional tax increases to raise revenues for the upcoming two-year budget.

"We gave the governor an alternative to cutting schools: to implement [the legislature's] plan," countered Dwight Crum, the spokesman for Speaker of the House Larry Householder.

Mr. Crum said most lawmakers believed that April's tax collections would provide a clearer picture of the budget situation. If the budget shortfall exceeded the legislators' prediction, then lawmakers could have returned to address the issue, Mr. Crum said.

Before the end of the fiscal year, Ohio school districts may have to weather yet another financial hit.

State lottery profits are below estimates, and the shortfall could affect funding for schools, said J.C. Benton, a spokesman for the education department.

Ohio teachers' unions are asking for a stable stream of new revenue for education.

Deidra M. Brown, the director of governmental services for the Ohio Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, said the cuts take schools in the "wrong direction."

With cuts in staffing and training, she said, schools will have a harder time meeting higher state and federal standards for teachers and students.

"It's outrageous and disgraceful that the state is actually cutting funding for education," added Tom Mooney, the president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

Litigation Lingers

The fight to protect education aid may be gaining steam.

A group of local school systems is vowing to block Gov. Taft's cuts in court, while students, teachers, and school board members from another group of districts are planning a protest rally this month in Columbus, the state capital. A legislative override of Gov. Taft's veto is also possible.

"This appears to be a game of 'chicken' between the governor and the legislature, and nobody blinked—so education will suffer," said J. Kevin Kelley, the president of the school board in Parma City, a 13,500- student district south of Cleveland.

He is leading an effort to ask a local judge for an injunction to halt the education cuts, which will total $600,000 of Parma City's $23 million in state aid.

Meanwhile, the fiscal feuding has recharged the state's long-running school funding lawsuit.

The plaintiffs in the case, the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, have asked a Perry County Common Pleas Court judge to hold a compliance hearing to make sure the legislature fixes the school aid formula. The Ohio Supreme Court ruled in December, for the fourth time, that the state's funding formula was unconstitutional. ("Ohio Court Rejects State School Aid System," Jan. 8, 2003.)

State Attorney General Jim Petro responded to the coalition's action by filing a complaint with the state supreme court arguing that the local court has no jurisdiction in the suit.

"You have an unconstitutional system that just keeps going without judicial oversight," said William L. Phillis, the coalition's executive director. "Where do you get injunctive relief?"

Vol. 22, Issue 27, Pages 15-16

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