COLUMBUS _ The state school-funding system remains unconstitutional, despite the Legislature's efforts to retool the way Ohio pays for public education, a Perry County judge ruled Friday.
"It's like deja vu all over again," Common Pleas Judge Linton Lewis Jr. wrote, borrowing a quote from baseball Hall of Famer Yogi Berra.
"The state has not implemented a complete systematic overhaul of the Ohio school-funding system," Lewis added. "As such, the state has failed to meet its burden of proving that its remedy complies with the mandates of the Ohio Supreme Court."
Gov. Bob Taft and leaders of the House and Senate said in a joint news release that they would appeal the decision to the Ohio Supreme Court.
"We believe that our efforts have met the Supreme Court's mandate to reform Ohio's system of school funding, and that our remedies will be found constitutional," Taft, House Speaker Jo Ann Davidson and Senate President Richard Finan _ all Republicans _ said.
"We look forward to getting beyond discussions focused just on money and moving forward to solve the real challenge of improving academic achievement for all students."
Lewis told the state schools superintendent and the State Board of Education to come up with another plan that will meet the court order. The Legislature would then have until the end of the year to enact a constitutional funding system.
But until the Supreme Court reviews the ruling, there likely will be no immediate effect on schools or their finances.
Democrats said it was time to concede defeat and start working on a plan acceptable to the coalition of school districts that challenged the funding system.
"From Judge Lewis' decision it is evident that the Legislature did not fully meet the needs of our schools in the previous proposal," said House Minority Leader Jack Ford, D-Toledo. "We must now re-evaluate and provide a solution that does meet those terms."
Lewis conducted a nine-day hearing last summer to determine whether the state had done enough in response to the Supreme Court's March 1997 order that said the previous school financing formula was unconstitutional. The high court left Lewis, who in 1994 was the first judge to order a change in the formula, in charge of overseeing the state's response.
The case began with a 1991 lawsuit filed by Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding, which represents more than 500 of the state's 611 school districts.
Coalition officials said they were ready to meet with lawmakers to reach a settlement.
"We're ready, willing and able to help draft a solution," Bill Phillis, the group's executive director, said at a news conference.
Phillis and other coalition officials derided the state's response to the Supreme Court order as more cosmetic than substantive.
The response still relies too heavily on property taxes, forces mandates on districts that are so costly the districts will have to go back to voters for more money, and doesn't do enough for repair and replacement of buildings, he concluded, echoing the position the coalition's lawyers took during the hearing.
The state's witnesses at the hearing said the Legislature had responded to each point made in the court's order with a plan that will ensure a proper education for Ohio's children and close the gap between poor and rich schools.
They noted that the state has committed $1 billion so far to help districts with building needs, developed a new funding formula that will mean districts don't have to go back to voters as often for money unless they want to add programs, and taken steps to improve districts' fiscal and academic accountability.
Lewis on Friday ordered the state to pay the coalition's legal fees. The amount had not been determined.