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School funding strategy gets OK

Unclear if state Senate will vote on plan this month

The Ohio House approved on Thursday a bipartisan proposal to overhaul the state’s unconstitutional school funding system, though it’s uncertain whether the plan will get a vote this month in the Republican-led Senate.

During testimony before the Ohio House Fair School hearing on Wednesday, Boardman Local Schools Treasurer Terry Armstrong said the new legislation would replace a system that has 82 percent of Ohio schools being funded outside of the current formula through a patchwork of guarantees and funding caps.

As the former superintendent of Lordstown schools, Armstrong said that district lost more than 50 percent of its funding annually due to a cap. It also lost millions as locally generated tangible personal property taxes are being phased out.

“The current foundation funding is based on a formula that results in Boardman Schools having their funding cut by over $3 million per year due to it being capped,” Armstrong said during his testimony. “Many school districts, like Boardman, are at a disadvantage under the current funding system due to its over-reliance on property valuations.”

Some lawmakers question the accuracy and feasibility of the eventual price tag — an estimated $2 billion annually.

Lawmakers championing the proposal for a more equitable funding distribution have pushed for action before year’s end, when several of them leave office because of term limits and the legislative process restarts with the next General Assembly. But the Republican who leads the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Matt Dolan of Chagrin Falls, has indicated he thinks the changes will take more time to evaluate fully and should be considered during next year’s state budget process.

Outgoing Democratic Rep. John Patterson, a former teacher from Jefferson who has spent years working toward a school funding fix, urged his colleagues not to wait and to consider it a first step toward that budget.

“If this plan is transparent, and it is, if it’s predictable, and it is, and if it’s sustainable, and it is, this is the time,” Patterson said shortly before the plan cleared the GOP-led House with broad bipartisan support.

The proposal, built on several years of discussions with schools and other stakeholders, would take into account a base cost of educating a typical student, as well as a community’s ability to help fund its schools, factoring in not just property values but also local income levels. Among other changes, it would eliminate funding caps and guarantees that affect a majority of Ohio’s 600-plus districts; direct more money for economically disadvantaged students; and route public charter school funding directly from the state rather than through local districts.

It would be phased in over six years.

Supporters say the plan would address many of the issues that have plagued the state’s funding formula, which the Ohio Supreme Court has found unconstitutional four times, beginning with the DeRolph decision in 1997. The 23-year-old DeRolph decision noted, among other things, that school budgets have been too reliant on local property taxes.

This new plan would look at average income in communities, as well as property tax levels, in determining how much funding a school district receives.

“We are nearing the end of a long journey, and now, after 23 years, we finally have a real, comprehensive, and most importantly, constitutional, plan to fairly fund our schools and invest in Ohio’s future,” Patterson said.

The new plan would more accurately determine the base cost of educating a typical Ohio student before added supports such as gifted education, special education and transportation, among others. Ohio’s current formula lacks this input.

State Rep. Michele Lepore-Hagan, D-Youngstown, who voted in favor of HB-305, said the new legislation will balance the scale for funding schools.

“For far too long, Ohio’s schools have been denied fair and balanced funding that would enable them to give our children the very best,” Lepore-Hagan said.

State Rep. Michael O’Brien, D-Warren, added that students need more than textbooks to succeed.

“House Bill 305 would enact a fair formula that ensures all students have the resources for a quality education regardless of their family’s income or place of residence,” O’Brien said.

news@tribtoday.com

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