CHICAGO -- A common pleas court in Ohio ruled late Friday that the state's school funding system is unconstitutional and ordered the state to draft a plan to eliminate inequities among school districts.

But education and state officials said that the Perry County Common Pleas Court decision is not likely to lead to immediate changes in Ohio's school funding system. The decision sets the stage for further legal battles that may take several years to settle in the state appeals and supreme courts, they said.

If the suit is ultimately successful, Ohio could end up paying more than $1.2 billion annually to equalize funding among the state's 612 school districts, according to William Phillis, executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy. The coalition, which comprises 500 school districts, backed the lawsuit that was filed by five school districts in January 1992.

Filed against the state of Ohio, the state board of education, the state department of education, and the state superintendent, the suit alleges that the state's school aid mechanism is unconstitutional because it results in funding disparities among the state's 612 districts.

Annual per-pupil funding among school districts ranges from $3,700 to $13,000.

In its decision, the common pleas court said the system to fund primary and secondary education violates Ohio's constitution because it does not produce a thorough and efficient system of education for all students."

The court also instructed the state superintendent and the board of education to prepare for the legislature a report outlining proposals to eliminate funding disparities among school districts.

"The court gave us everything we asked for," Phillis said.

But Joel Taylor, an attorney for the state, said that Ohio will appeal the decision to the Fifth District Court of Appeals in Canton within the next month. Taylor said he believed the suit will land in the Ohio Supreme Court, regardless of the decision at the appeals court level.

The Perry County Common Pleas Court ruling is not the only Ohio school funding decision that has been successful at the lower court level. In 1979, the Cincinnati public schools tried and failed to overturn the state's school funding system. The Cincinnati schools won in common pleas and appeals courts, but lost in the state Supreme Court.

Taylor said the state opposed the coalition's suit based on the 1979 Supreme Court decision on the Cincinnati schools, which upheld the constitutionality of the state's school funding system.

State legislative leaders supported the state's decision to appeal the common pleas court decision.

Scott Borgemenke, special assistant to Senate President Stanley Aronoff, R-Cincinnati, said that state lawmakers should take a wait-and-see attitude toward drastic changes in the school funding system until the suit is settled by the courts.

Borgemenke said Ohio has made "great strides" toward solving the equity problem among school districts. He said that in the current biennium the state will provide $135 million for its poorest school districts. In addition, he said, the state has set up a $200 million school building assistance fund for poor school districts.

Cliff Treyens, a spokesman for House Speaker Vern Riffe, D-Ports-mouth, said state lawmakers should wait to get "a definitive word" from the courts before dealing with school funding.

State Sen. Robert Burch, D-Dover, a Democrat who will face Republican Gov. George Voinovich in the Nov. 8 election, believes that the state should not appeal the ruling, according to Jim Bleikamp, Burch's communications director.

"It's time to get the issue out of court. The state should stop wasting money and take real action," Bleikamp said, adding that Burch supports the school districts that filed the suit.

Bleikamp said that Burch does not have a specific plan to equalize funding among school districts. However, if elected governor, Burch would support increasing the funding for education.

A spokesman for Gov. George Voinovich did not return phone calls.

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