Law & Courts

Mediator Has Tough Job In Ohio Funding Case

By Jessica L. Sandham — January 23, 2002 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Howard S. Bellman is being asked to do what no Ohio lawyer, legislator, or governor has been able to do: Resolve a school finance suit that is a decade in the making—in less than 10 weeks.

That Herculean task fell to Mr. Bellman after the Ohio Supreme Court in November ordered mediation as a way to end the state’s long-running school finance case.

At the time, lawmakers and educators throughout the state raised a collective eyebrow in skeptical bemusement. How was it possible, they wondered, for anyone—even a professional mediator—to resolve such a complex and contentious issue so quickly?

One editorial writer even went so far as to say that if the court-appointed mediator could break the deadlock and persuade the parties involved to settle the dispute, “he should be called miracle worker, not mediator.”

Well, “miracle worker” is not listed on the résumé of Mr. Bellman, the 64-year-old lawyer assigned to mediate the case, known as DeRolph v. State of Ohio. But plenty else is.

Mr. Bellman, who lives in Madison, Wis., has decades of experience mediating complex public-policy disputes, environmental disputes, and collective-bargaining. But this is the first time he has mediated a school finance case of this magnitude. In fact, education finance experts say this is likely the first time a state school finance case has gone to mediation at this late a stage in the game.

As to whether he will succeed in such a short time with a case as long-running and tangled as the school funding dispute in Ohio—which was filed in 1991 by a rural school seeking more aid—Mr. Bellman simply doesn’t know.

“It’s a fair question, but I don’t know the answer,” Mr. Bellman said in a recent interview. Mr. Bellman must submit a report to the court in mid-February. If he is not able to get the two sides to agree on a resolution, or get an extension for further mediation, then the state supreme court will take up the case again.

“You don’t know until the end,” he said. “All I can do is plod along and learn the case and try to help the parties, and then report back when the time comes.”

Starting Differences

The road to court-ordered mediation in the case began with a Sept. 17 motion in which Gov. Bob Taft asked the state supreme court to reconsider a then-2-week-old ruling that had ordered the state to raise education spending by $1.2 billion over two years. It was the court’s third decision in the case.

Gov. Taft, a Republican, argued that the court had used faulty data to calculate the cost of its funding fix, and that the economic fallout from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks made it even more difficult for Ohio to pay for the court-ordered remedy.

The court agreed to reconsider the case, and then ordered mediation in a 4-3 ruling handed down on Nov. 16. The court hired Mr. Bellman to guide the discussions in December, after giving both the state and the plaintiffs a list of possible mediators. The parties who are meeting with Mr. Bellman include Mary Lynne Readey, the assistant attorney general who represents the Republican majority legislators and Gov. Taft; Nicholas A. Pittner, a lawyer representing the coalition of school districts that sued the state; and Sen. Ben Espy, who represents the interests of the Democratic minority in the legislature.

The parties are not talking publicly about the mediation. But observers saw rough spots from the start. In his initial report to the supreme court this month, Mr. Bellman wrote, “The particular matters suggested as appropriate for governing the mediation process are under discussion.”

Apparently, the coalition representing the plaintiffs differed with state officials over whether the whole case was up for negotiation, or just certain aspects of it.

Gov. Taft indicated in a December press release that he viewed the mediation process as a chance to resolve “the few remaining issues” identified in the state’s motion for reconsideration. The plaintiffs, meanwhile, have said they see mediation as a chance to revisit broader issues raised in the court’s earlier rulings.

“We the plaintiffs believe that the current [school aid] system is incongruent with the court’s original order of a systematic overhaul,” said William L. Phillis, the executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, a group representing the 500-plus school districts that sued the state.

“We must secure high-quality educational opportunities for every kid and that has not been accomplished so far,” he continued. “We have this complete systematic overhaul to protect; will not move on that position.”

Warren Russell, the director of legislative services for the Ohio School Boards Association, said the question of what’s up for negotiation in the mediation process “is a very big question in terms of where it goes and what would be included in a settlement.”

‘Clash of Titans’

Without going into specifics of the case, Mr. Bellman acknowledged that it is unusual because of the enormously high stakes for Ohio’s schools and the other state services that depend on public dollars. The case is also out of the ordinary, he says, because it highlights a tension at the intersection of the state’s various branches of government.

“The executive and the legislature seem to think that the courts are legislating, and the courts seem to believe that unconstitutional conduct has occurred,” Mr. Bellman added. “So there’s sort of a clash of the titans there. And the decision will necessarily need to be made by one of the parties; there’s no place else to go with the case.”

Mr. Bellman said his job is not to tell the parties what the answer is. Rather, he says, he works to understand the different points of view of the competing parties and then tries “to help them find ways of reconciling their points of view.”

“All of that involves many, many, many conversations,” Mr. Bellman added. “Sometimes with them together and sometimes with them separately.”

Over the course of his career, Mr. Bellman has developed vital background for his work in Ohio. He has mediated collective bargaining disputes in schools, and was the secretary of Wisconsin’s department of labor in the 1980s.

Perhaps just as significant is the fact that Mr. Bellman is both an outsider and an insider to the Buckeye State. He has lived and practiced in Wisconsin for many years now, and did not know the particulars of this case until he was called on to mediate. Still, he grew up in Toledo, Ohio, and went to public schools there before attending college and law school at the University of Cincinnati.

“The fact that I’m from the outside means that I don’t come to the case with a bias,” Mr. Bellman said. “If I lived in Ohio, it may have been difficult for me not to have some sort of attitude about the case coming in. But I think that knowing I spent some formative time here, that was important, too.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 23, 2002 edition of Education Week as Mediator Has Tough Job In Ohio Funding Case

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Stronger Together: Integrating Social and Emotional Supports in an Equity-Based MTSS
Decades of research have shown that when schools implement evidence-based social and emotional supports and programming, academic achievement increases. The impact of these supports – particularly for students of color, students from low-income communities, English
Content provided by Illuminate Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Whole Child Approach to Supporting Positive Student Behavior 
To improve student behavior, it’s important to look at the root causes. Social-emotional learning may play a preventative role.

A whole child approach can proactively support positive student behaviors.

Join this webinar to learn how.
Content provided by Panorama
Recruitment & Retention Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Why Retaining Education Leaders of Color Is Key for Student Success
Today, in the United States roughly 53 percent of our public school students are young people of color, while approximately 80 percent of the educators who lead their classrooms, schools, and districts are white. Racial

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts Supreme Court Blocks Biden Vaccine Mandate Applying to Schools in Much of the Country
The justices ruled 6-3 to stay an Occupational Health and Safety Administration rule that covered schools in 26 states and two territories.
4 min read
Members of the Supreme Court pose for a group photo last April.
The U.S. Supreme Court blocked a federal vaccine mandate for large employers, including school districts in about half the states.
Erin Schaff/The New York Times via AP
Law & Courts Students Lose Appeal on Right to Civics Education, But Win Praise From Judges Anyway
A federal appellate court panel commended Rhode Island students for the novel effort, but said Supreme Court precedent stood in the way.
3 min read
Scales of justice and Gavel on wooden table and Lawyer or Judge working with agreement in Courtroom, Justice and Law concept.
Pattanaphong Khuankaew/iStock
Law & Courts High Court Appears Skeptical of Vaccine Mandate Covering Schools in Over Half the States
The Biden administration's OSHA rule applies to private employers with 100 or more workers, as well as school districts in 26 states.
4 min read
The Supreme Court shown Friday, Jan. 7, 2022, in Washington. The Supreme Court is taking up two major Biden administration efforts to bump up the nation's vaccination rate against COVID-19 at a time of spiking coronavirus cases because of the omicron variant.
The U.S. Supreme Court is weighing two Biden administration efforts to bump up the nation's vaccination rate against COVID-19.
Evan Vucci/AP
Law & Courts Federal Judge Blocks Biden's COVID Vaccine Mandate for Head Start Teachers
In a challenge by 24 states, the judge's preliminary injunction also blocks a mask mandate for Head Start students age 2 or older.
4 min read
COVID face masks and gavel
iStock/Getty Images Plus