Court Names Expert To Mediate School-Funding Talks

By ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS, AP Statehouse Correspondent

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - The Ohio Supreme Court on Thursday named Howard Bellman, a Wisconsin mediation expert, to oversee settlement talks in the state's decade-old fight with schools over how Ohio pays for education.

The court by a 4-3 vote also rejected the Ohio attorney general's request to exclude private attorneys from representing state officials in the talks.

Justices ordered the negotiations last month after granting the state's request to reconsider their third ruling in the 1991 lawsuit filed by a coalition of about 500 school districts.

After twice deciding against the state, the court ruled in September that the current school-funding system would be constitutional if the state spends more money on it.

Bellman, 64, a Toledo native, received his bachelor's and law degrees from the University of Cincinnati. He is a Madison, Wis., lawyer with experience in labor, employment, environmental and Indian treaty dispute resolution.

He has mediated disputes for the Federal Trade Commission, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Park Service, the States of Wisconsin, New York, New Jersey, Washington and Florida.

He also has worked to mediate a 10-year-old racial discrimination lawsuit in the Rockford, Ill., schools.

A federal and state government labor attorney at the beginning of his career, Bellman began to participate in dispute resolutions as a private attorney.

"In very big cases such as this one where there's a very high profile and a great deal of expertise on the part of the parties, the main job of the mediator is to help them develop discussions in which they are able to find grounds or terms that are mutually acceptable," Bellman said Thursday. "That is to say, the mediator does not become the next level of judge."

Bellman said he does not consider himself a school-finance expert but is well-grounded in the subject.

The Supreme Court told Bellman in a Nov. 29 letter that the talks were expected to last eight to 10 weeks. Based on that, Bellman would charge Ohio about $68,600, including a $200 hourly rate and lodging and round-trip air fares, he told the court.

Justice Alice Robie Resnick, who strongly opposes the settlement talks, said that mediation will not address fundamental problems with Ohio's school-funding system.

"I continue to question how, given the scope of the legislation that would have to be enacted to bring about a complete overhaul of the system, a comprehensive solution can emerge from mediation," she wrote. Justices Deborah Cook and Francis Sweeney also dissented.

Attorney General Betty Montgomery had asked the court to exclude from the negotiations lawyers representing Gov. Bob Taft and the House and Senate. By law, the attorney general represents all state officials.

Montgomery argued that the state "cannot negotiate against itself." But the court said she had failed to object to those same attorneys filing previous court documents on behalf of Taft and lawmakers.

Successful talks depend on all interested parties being represented at the negotiating table, Chief Justice Thomas Moyer said in the majority opinion.

He noted that legal arguments filed by Taft and Republican lawmakers vary dramatically from arguments filed by Democrats, in the minority in the Ohio House and Senate.

"The attorney general simply cannot represent both sides at the same time during mediation without placing herself in an unacceptable position of conflict of interest," Moyer said.

However, Moyer said that nothing in Thursday's ruling would prevent lawmakers from designating Montgomery as their chief attorney.

Bellman was selected from a list of nine candidates suggested by the Supreme Court. Justices said each side could suggest their own within 10 days of the Nov. 16 order. Neither side did, saying they weren't given enough time.

The Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding sued in 1991 on behalf of Perry County student Nathan DeRolph. The group said Ohio's system for funding schools was unconstitutional because it relies too much on local property taxes, favoring rich districts over poor.

For example, Federal Hocking school district in southeastern Ohio raised $1,339 per student in local taxes last year. By contrast, Dublin, in suburban Columbus, raised $6,650 per student last year.

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