Petition drives seek to change way Ohio schools are funded
by Janetta M. Hammock

(Plain Press, December 2004) A former Ohio representative is spearheading a petition drive to force state lawmakers to improve the way in which Ohio public schools are funded. However, time is running out on the effort.

Bryan Flannery, a former state representative from Lakewood, began the petition drive in September. He is working to collect the 100,000 petition signatures needed to force the General Assembly to act on his public education funding system reform proposal, entitled the Flannery Education Act. Flannery has until December 15th to collect the needed signatures. The Flannery Education Act calls for revamping Ohio’s public school funding system by reducing the reliance on property taxes and increasing the amount of state funds available for public education.

As of November 14th, nearly 40,000 signatures had been collected. If the required 100,000 signatures are collected by the deadline, the Flannery Education Act would go to the legislature and Ohio lawmakers would have four months to act on the legislation. If the legislature failed to act on the bill within four months, the measure would then be presented to voters on the November 2005 ballot. If the needed signatures are not collected, the Flannery measure would in effect die – lawmakers would not have to act on it, nor could the bill be placed on the ballot. However, this is a fate that Flannery is not even considering.

“We are focusing on getting as many signatures on petitions as possible,” he said. Flannery estimates that about 6,000 petitions are currently circulating throughout the state.

Flannery’s petition drive is in response to four Ohio Supreme Court rulings that declared the state’s public school funding system unconstitutional because of its over- reliance on property taxes. Although Ohio lawmakers have tinkered with the system since the first high court ruling in 1997, they have not completely overhauled the system as was ordered in 1999. After more than ten years of legal battles in the case, the Ohio Supreme Court in 2002 surrendered its authority over the matter, and later blocked any further legal action on the case. The high court’s actions in effect released the Ohio legislature from complying with the order to fix the education funding system.

“The main obstacle to school funding reform is its complexity,” Flannery said. The existing funding system is so complex that many lawmakers are reluctant to tackle the issue of public school funding reform, he said. Funding reform would require significant time and energy, first to understand the existing system and then to explore ways to revamp it, Flannery said. “For too long, Ohioans have waited for the legislature to act,” he states in literature on his proposal. “Because the legislature still does not act, a school funding petition is now the answer.”

The Flannery Education Act would:

· Establish a commission that would determine every two years the actual cost of educating a student in Ohio. The General Assembly then would be required to provide the funds determined as necessary to adequately educate students in public schools.

· Reduce property taxes statewide by $1.7 billion, and make up the school funding difference without increasing the rate of income, sales, or property taxes.

· Ensure that no district would suffer a loss due to the reduction in property taxes.

· Prohibit local campaigns for school operating levies. This provision Flannery said would allow teachers to focus on the business of teaching, instead of fundraising efforts.

· Require that in the first five years of enactment of the bill, that at least 25 percent of the STAR Ohio Fund be invested within the state to help improve local economies. After the first five years, 50 percent of the funds would have to be invested in Ohio. Currently, about 99 percent of STAR funds are invested outside of the state, Flannery said.

· More than double the Homestead property tax relief for senior and disabled citizens.

To pay for the $1.7 billion tax cut, Flannery is proposing that the legislature close a number of sales tax loopholes for professional services. Doing so could provide an annual savings of nearly $1 billion, he said. Other ways to make up for the reduction in property taxes include eliminating the property tax rollback and reforming Medicaid overbilling. Reforming Medicaid overbilling could save about $1.5 billion for the state in the first year, Flannery said.

“People are always saying we need to do something [about public education funding], but they never say what we should do,” Flannery said. “This bill says what we need to do.”

The public education funding reform bill is similar to a measure Flannery introduced prior to leaving state office in 2002. However, at the time the bill was introduced, lawmakers did not take action on the funding reform proposal. Despite lack of action on public school funding reform by Ohio lawmakers in recent years, Flannery believes there is support for improving the state’s education funding system. He noted that when he introduced the bill as a state representative, he had 30 co-sponsors. In addition, the fact that the Cleveland Municipal School District tax levy failed, along with half of all public school tax levies that appeared on ballots throughout the state during the recent election, is an indication that residents want lawmakers to find other ways to fund public schools, instead of continuing to rely on property tax dollars, Flannery said.

In addition, this month the Ohio Coalition for Adequacy & Equity announced its unanimous endorsement of the Flannery Education Act. The Coalition is responsible for the case that resulted in the Supreme Court declaring Ohio ’s education funding system unconstitutional. Flannery called the endorsement “hugely significant” because of the organization’s tireless efforts over the past 14 years to provide adequate education for all of Ohio ’s students.

Flannery is urging Ohio residents to visit his website, download a petition, sign the petition, and circulate it to family, friends, and co-workers. For a petition or more information about the petition drive, visit the website flanneryforohio.com.

 

Second Petition Drive Underway

In a related issue, another petition drive for revamping Ohio’s public school funding system is underway and, like Flannery’s effort, the deadline for meeting the petition goal is fast approaching.

The Ohio Fair Schools Campaign, a statewide organization located in Athens, is hoping to collect 100,000 signatures on a petition that calls for Ohio lawmakers to consider changes to the public school funding system next year when it begins to work on state budget proposals. In part the petition states, “We urge the Governor and Ohio lawmakers to fix the school funding system so that it is fair and provides enough resources to enable all Ohio children to achieve and succeed.”

The Ohio Fair Schools Campaign originally had hoped to collect the 100,000 signatures by October 31, 2004 and present them to the Ohio legislature by the end of November.

However, since the group was still far short of its goal in October, the deadline was extended to December 20, 2004 . As of November 14th, the group had gathered more than 20,000 signatures, and remained confident that it would gather the nearly 80,000 additional signatures needed by the deadline. Earlier this month, the group made it possible for individuals to sign a petition online. In less than a day later, the group had received more than 1,000 signatures, said Debbie Phillips, executive director of the organization. “We are confident that we will be able to make our goal,” she said. “Having the petition online makes it enormously easier for people.”

Doug Henderson of the Cleveland-area Northeast Ohio Alliance for Hope,who also serves as president of the Ohio Fair Schools Campaign, said he believes there is enough interest throughout the state on public school funding reform to enable the petition drive to be successful. Phillips agrees and added that recent election results increased Ohio Fair Schools Campaign’s chances for success. The failure of many local school tax levies has created turmoil within communities, Phillips said. As a result, more people are becoming interested in issues related to education funding and are now more likely to contact their legislators and urge them to revamp the public education funding system, she said.

Members of the Ohio Fair Schools Campaign met on November 22nd to begin exploring the possibility of pushing for a ballot initiative that would call for lawmakers to fix the public school funding system.

For more information about the Ohio Fair Schools Campaign or to sign a petition or download a petition, go to the group’s website at www.ohiofairschools.org. The group also can be reached by calling 740-592-2866.

Janetta M. Hammock wrote this article special for the Plain Press as part of her coursework in City as a Classroom at Case Western Reserve University . The course, taught by Professor Rhonda Williams, focused on public education this semester.

 

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