Court Orders Mediation In School Funding Lawsuit

By AMY BETH GRAVES, Associated Press Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - The Ohio Supreme Court on Friday ordered mediation in the state's school financing lawsuit, hoping a neutral party can break the 10-year-old impasse over Ohio's method of paying for public schools.

"A majority of this court believes that the time is ripe for the parties ... to meet and attempt to reach settlement with the assistance of a mediator experienced in resolving public-policy disputes," according to the court's order.

The court ruled in September that the state had to spend more money on its current school funding system to make it constitutional.

State officials later estimated the cost at $1.2 billion a year and asked the court to reconsider its ruling. The court agreed on Nov. 2.

Some of the justices who voted for the order said they believed the remedy would cost much less.

Chief Justice Thomas Moyer wrote the opinion, which was supported by Justices Andy Douglas, Paul Pfeifer and Eve Lundberg Stratton. Those who oppose mediation are Justices Francis Sweeney, Alice Robie Resnick and Deborah Cook.

In a dissent, Cook repeated her long-argued assertion that the court has no jurisdiction.

"Today's decision to refer this cause to court-ordered, court-supervised settlement proceedings continues to inject this court into matters beyond the scope of the judicial function," she wrote. "The only action that this court should take -- because it is the only action legitimate under law -- is to dismiss the case."

Gov. Bob Taft said in a statement that he welcomed the chance to resolve the case.

William Phillis, executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, said earlier that the coalition would support mediation.

"What we have said repeatedly is that we in the coalition are willing to discuss with the state this whole matter so long as all the issues are on the table," he said.

Phillis said the coalition also wants the state to speak with one voice and for any agreement to be filed with the court so that it can be enforced.

He said he is not sure the state can speak with one voice, citing the difficulties Republican leaders are having in reaching an agreement over how to handle the state's budget problems.

Attorney General Betty Montgomery earlier said her office was exploring the possibility of negotiations to settle the suit.

Any resolution to the case is expected to be complicated by the state's current budget crisis. House and Senate leaders are debating competing proposals to plug a projected $1.5 billion budget gap.

The court's September ruling was the third in the lawsuit filed in 1991 on behalf of then Perry County pupil Nathan DeRolph. The Supreme Court twice before had declared the school funding system unconstitutional. Both rulings said the system created disparities between rich and poor districts by relying too much on local property taxes.

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