School funding down to the wire

By Dan Trevas Record-Courier Capital Bureau Published:

COLUMBUS _ Most Portage County school districts would receive increases in state aid should legislators approve a school funding plan raising the state sales tax one-half percent.

But the proposed increase is not sitting well with many state lawmakers, including those voting for the plan.

Edging up against a midnight Wednesday deadline to place a half-cent tax increase on the May 5 primary ballot, legislators are trying to work out last-minute details.

Working until after midnight Monday, leaders are scaling

back the original proposal to reduce local real estate taxes, cut business tax rebates and hike the state sales tax from 5 percent to 5.5 percent in order to get enough votes to put an increase on the ballot.

In order to quell conservatives opposing any new taxes and secure enough Democrat votes to reach the 60 votes needed in the Ohio House, the plan may drop the business tax reductions and require the new money raised by the sales tax be dedicated to fixing inadequate school buildings in poorer areas of the state.

"I think (the plan) goes a long way in setting out a plan that is not perfect, but certainly a major step in addressing our school funding problem in Ohio. The big question now is the money," said Rep. Ann Womer Benjamin, R-Aurora.

Womer Benjamin and Rep. Twyla Roman, R-Springfield Township, voted in favor of a new school funding formula that received legislative approval over the weekend. The new spending plan attempts to comply with a Ohio Supreme Court order that lawmakers overhaul the way its funds its $12 billion public education system.

Most local districts would receive additional state assistance due to a provision in the plan that considers a district's ability to support itself financially. Windham schools would lead Portage County districts with a 10.8-percent increase; Aurora schools would be the only county district with no increase.

Both Kent and Ravenna city schools districts are anticipated to get substantial increases in aid under the plan. Both reach the maximum cap of 10 percent in extra aid, but additional funds boost increases to slightly above 10 percent.

Kent schools would get about $10.3 million compared to the $9.3 million provided this year. Ravenna schools would receive $9 million compared to $8.1 million this school year.

Womer Benjamin said the tax changes are needed to raise the revenue to fund the plan that will add at least $300 million more to public schools in the 1998-1999 school year and offer steady increases for years to come. If voters reject the sales tax, then other state government services will have to be significantly reduced.

"I truly believed all along that we need to inject additional revenue into school funding. We have cut $100 million in budget in state spending. I think it is unrealistic to rely entirely on budget growth for the balance needed," she said.

Roman insists the state could fund the plan without new taxes if changes are made in state spending habits. She has favored plans that earmarks future gains in existing taxes for schools and reign in spending on other programs.

"I don't have assurance that this is going to go the schools," she said.

Roman said she would rather see the sales tax made temporary and devoted to repairing inadequate school facilities in poor areas.

"I'd like to see us address the issue of buildings for low-wealth district. That is what the court wanted us to focus on," she said.

The court gave lawmakers until March 24 to come up with a plan. It calls for devising a logical formula that determines how much money is needed each year to adequately fund a proper education for all 1.8-million school students.

Lawmakers have determined by 2002 it will cost $4,414 to provide an adequate education and they are phasing in state dollars over the next five years to meet the goal. The plan guarantees each school will have $3,851 per pupil for basic academic services next year, which is about $200 per student more than currently provided.

Legislators have added a few special programs to smooth out pitfalls in the funding system. They are committing to paying for half the cost of providing student transportation and increasing their commitment to 60 percent by 2003.

Also in the mix is a $9.3-million supplement that assures districts do not lose money when property values are readjusted by reappraisals. Local districts lose revenues when the state assumes they receive more local tax dollars generated by higher property values.

To help poorer districts that go above the state minimum in providing local support for education, the state created a $11.4-million power equalization fund. This supplement helps ensure the local effort is rewarded and reduces the needs for further property tax increases from poorer areas. Kent would receive about $12,000 next year and Ravenna $34,000 from the plan.

Both the House and Senate were scheduled to meet early Tuesday morning to resume efforts to get the plan on the ballot. Conservative House members are do not believe the leaders can coax enough votes from skeptical members from both parties.

"I'm not sure were it goes from here," Rep. William Batchelder told the

Associated Press. "It's kind of like herding frogs."

Want to leave your comments?

Sign in or Register to comment.