Mediator Fails To Settle Ohio's Decade-Old School-Funding Fight

By ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS, AP Statehouse Correspondent

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Negotiations to end Ohio's decade-old school funding lawsuit have failed, the court-appointed mediator told the Ohio Supreme Court on Thursday.

"While the parties have worked hard and been cooperative with me in every way, I must report that my mediation has not produced a resolution," Howard Bellman, a lawyer based in Madison, Wis., said in a three-sentence report to the court.

"Thank you for the confidence that has been expressed by my appointment. I am very sorry that I could not achieve the desired end," Bellman wrote.

The Supreme Court ordered the talks in November to try to settle a lawsuit filed in 1991 by the Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, a group of about 500 schools. The suit, named for Perry County school boy Nathan DeRolph, argues that Ohio's school-funding system favors rich districts over poor.

Negotiations began in December.

Thursday was the deadline for Bellman to report on the talks' status. He did not ask for an extension.

In an interview, Bellman said both sides entered the talks with strong positions that ultimately couldn't be changed. He said it's possible extended negotiations might have helped.

"The parties have very deep-seated principles about educational policy and about the roles of the various institutions of government," Bellman said. "They also have a considerable history of conflict over that.

"I think the combination of the effects of that history and the depths of their commitment to the principles just overwhelmed my capacity to extricate them from all of that," he said.

To date, Bellman has billed the state $23,285 for preparation, travel expenses and lodging.

The failure to settle the suit puts the issue back before the court.

Chief Justice Thomas Moyer said mediation is a preferred method for handling such public policy disputes.

"While I appreciate the efforts by all parties, it is unfortunate that the interested parties to the DeRolph litigation were not able to successfully use this process," Moyer said.

The court has twice ruled against the state's plan. In a third ruling in September, the court said the plan would be constitutional with additional spending.

Options before the court include upholding the September ruling, modifying it, or ordering both sides to submit new arguments.

Bellman's report confirmed what officials on both sides of the lawsuit had been saying for two days.

Gov. Bob Taft said Wednesday he was disappointed that the talks had failed.

"We put a number of what we thought were very constructive, good faith, serious, responsible proposals forward," he said. "We were disappointed that none of the proposals seemed to catch fire in mediation."

Nicholas Pittner, the lead attorney for the schools, said Wednesday that the two sides entered the talks with different agendas. The state saw negotiations as a chance to resolve a final portion of the court's September ruling, while the coalition believed all issues surrounding school funding were on the table, Pittner said.

"It would seem that both parties went into the process with some rather different perspectives on what it is that needed to be addressed," he said.

The case is in the court's hands now, said Joe Case, a spokesman for Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery. "We put our best foot forward," he said.

The talks started after the state asked the Supreme Court to reconsider the September ruling that required the state to spend more money on schools. Doing so would make Ohio's school-funding system constitutional, the court ruled.

The state asked for reconsideration after estimates of the additional spending hit $1.2 billion a year. The state argued that the court had used inaccurate data and that the number should be closer to $400 million.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)