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Lawsuit challenges equality of Columbus public schools

Ohio’s embattled public schools were confronted with a new lawsuit Monday challenging whether students within each district being treated equally.


Ironically dubbed Brown v. Board of Education like the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision that outlawed racial segregation in public schools the action strikes at the heart of the state’s school funding dispute.


The Ohio Supreme Court has repeatedly declared the state’s school funding system unconstitutional, saying a heavy reliance on the local tax base created inequality between districts because a poor district can’t raise as much money as a wealthy one. Monday’s lawsuit argues that two buildings within one school district can also be unequal.


“We made a tremendous mistake thinking we could just fix a system on a district-to-district basis,” said Republican mayoral challenger Bill Todd, who filed the lawsuit in Franklin County Common Pleas Court. “The question for the 21st century is how do we get the resources to the individual student to compete in a global economy.”


Todd filed his lawsuit against the state and the Columbus City Schools Board of Education on behalf of Columbus resident Willis Brown and four other taxpayers.


Todd is an underdog challenger to the city’s popular Democratic mayor, Michael Coleman. He has sought before during the campaign to link Coleman to Columbus’ struggling school district, though it operates independently of city government.


A Columbus schools spokesman declined comment while district lawyers reviewed the complaint. The Ohio Department of Education said it does not comment on pending lawsuits.


Coleman defended his record on education, meanwhile. He touted $7 million the city has spent on education-related initiatives since 2001, including after-school learning centers, repair of school sidewalks and establishment of a mayor’s Office of Education to coordinate education initiatives around the city. Coleman has also held a series of education summits.


“For the past eight years, Mayor Coleman has worked with elected officials in Columbus and throughout Ohio to fundamentally change the way education is supported in Columbus,” campaign spokesman Bryan Clark said in a statement.


To build his case, Todd used the state’s own performance barometer, the State Report Card, against them. He looked at money spent on schools the state has labeled to be failing compared to spending on non-failing schools, and says he found with the help of research from the conservative Buckeye Institute and the nonpartisan Education Trust that the failing schools are getting less state money.


Todd said he believes in public schools, but also advocates parents’ ability to shop for private or charter schools that better meet their needs.


“This whole thing is about public schools, and about making sure they work as efficiently as possible,” he said. “What I’m about is I like to rethink systems from the ground up.”


Todd’s lawsuit charges that the failure of 59 schools in the Columbus district is directly related to a discrepancy in funding for those in lower income areas.


Data posted on the Ohio Department of Education’s Web site indicate that the dollars spent per pupil at Columbus schools during the 2004-2005 school year varied widely, from $980 a year to more than $16,000 in some isolated cases.


The figures can vary due to teacher salaries, which are tied to level of experience, the number of students with special needs, such as autism, and a variety of other factors.


On the Net:


Ohio Department of Education:


The Buckeye Institute:


The Education Trust:


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