Message sent: ‘Do something or we’ll sue you.’

By Jim Siegel - The Columbus Dispatch

COLUMBUS, Ohio — After years of being denied millions of dollars as a result of arbitrary state funding caps, some school districts are preparing to take legal action if lawmakers don’t address the shortfall.

“I am sorry to inform you that if the legislature does not address the gain caps in this biennium budget that a group of districts will be filing a federal lawsuit,” Delaware City Schools Superintendent Paul Craft told the Senate Finance Committee last week.

Craft was among a handful of district officials to testify, all of whom are getting significantly less state funding than the current formula says they should receive.

The school-funding plan that passed the House as part of the two-year state operating budget does not address the funding caps. Instead, following Gov. Mike DeWine’s lead, the plan essentially leaves current funding in place with an extra $675 million over two years to districts based on student poverty concentrations. The funding is designed to support social and emotional services, such as counseling and after-school programs.

The Senate is expected to start making major changes to the budget this week, and those are likely to include more money to capped districts. Whether it goes far enough for those districts, including the 74 that lost at least $1 million this year, remains to be seen.

“It’s an obvious problem. It’s a very, very expensive solution,” said Sen. Matt Dolan, R-Chagrin Falls, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. This year alone, the cap cost districts an estimated $470 million, and Dolan says he understands the frustration.

“People are choosing to live in a school system that is growing, but their funding is based on a set year in the past,” he said. “Name any other business operation where we say we want you to expand, but you’re going to be paid what you got paid 10 years ago.”

School officials are urging lawmakers to adopt the “Cupp-Patterson” funding plan, which was developed by a working group of school officials led by a pair of House members. It attempts to fund the true cost of educating a typical child, and includes no funding caps.

Many capped districts would be in line for major funding increases under Cupp-Patterson. But House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, declined to insert it in the budget because a number of lower-income rural and urban districts saw little new money, while suburban districts saw larger per-pupil increases.

Ellen McWilliams-Woods, assistant superintendent of Akron City Schools, told lawmakers that within the week, the working group will release adjustments to the plan aimed at driving money toward high-poverty districts.

Funding caps have persisted for years for several reasons, not the least of which is a repeated failure to fully fund whatever formula is in place, and the discomfort with directing so much new spending toward wealthier districts.

Craft outlined the basis for a federal civil rights lawsuit against the state, arguing that if the state provides $2,800 for a disabled, minority student in a capped district, more than $4,000 for that student in a similar, uncapped district, “they are obviously not receiving the equal protection under the law,” Craft said.

Lawmakers can address the issue, Craft said, “but has so far indicated they are not interested in doing so.”

Dolan was surprise by the tactic.

“I’m not surprised that there’s anger enough to file a lawsuit. I’m surprised to hear that in a Senate Finance Committee that he would say, ‘Do something or we’ll sue you.’”

By Jim Siegel

The Columbus Dispatch

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