THE CURIOUS CASE OF WILLIAM PHILLIS
By Cyndy Rees
(SALEM, OHIO) Earlier this month, State Representative Andrew Brenner (R-Powell) introduced legislation that would begin discussions towards a constitutional amendment that would alter primary and secondary education funding in Ohio. Rep. Brenner’s proposed constitutional amendment, which he has said in a December 15, 2016 news conference, would be a “conversation starter” would eliminate local property taxes in favor of a statewide property tax, fund each student similarly, and provide for excess lottery profits and property taxes to adequately fund education, and equalize funding across Ohio.
Brenner’s approach sounds familiar. After the 1997 DeRolph v. Ohio the state’s Supreme Court decision where a divided Court ruled that Ohio had failed to meet its constitutional duties to adequately fund education, several proposals of this nature were advanced. By 2002, and three additional Supreme Court decisions, the Court relinquished control of the case and effectively washed its hands of the constitutionality of school funding. They had decided that Ohio’s Governors and General Assemblies had answered most of their concerns, but would not prescribe any additional remedies.
Brenner’s approach will be heard when Ohio’s 132nd General Assembly convenes in January for its two year ride. Since the Administration of Ohio Governor Bob Taft (R-OH), who is credited along with his predecessor, Governor George V. Voinovich (R-OH) with establishing the school funding fix along with some heavy lifting from the Ohio General Assembly, the issue of school funding has largely disappeared from the lexicon of “the average Ohioan” (who, according to the legendary Governor Jim Rhodes “wanted a good job and to be left alone.”)
But one consistent drum pounder for more money, and a lot more money, for education has been Mr. William E. Phillis, Executive Director of an organization known as The Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy in School Funding. It was this entity, funded with property tax dollars that local school districts, career centers, and educational service centers pay to fund the organization that originally dreamed up suing the State of Ohio to force changes in the school funding formula. Every dollar comes from Ohio property tax payers in these districts, who pay taxes in the hopes of educating children in these poor areas of Ohio.
So just who is Bill Phillis? Born in Salem, in Ohio’s hard scrabble coal and aggregates country in Eastern Ohio in 1937, Phillis attended local schools and obtained his B.S. from The Ohio State University in 1958, and a Master’s in Education in 1961 from Ohio State. He embarked upon a profession as a high school teacher, and then administrator from 1958 through 1976 with various positions as a superintendent of schools and joint vocational schools in Eastern and South East Ohio until that year.
In 1976, Phillis joined the Ohio Department of Education and was promoted through the ranks as Assistant Superintendent of Public Instruction, a prestigious position for a man who clearly possessed the skill and talent to rise to the top of his profession.
In 1991, upon the election of Governor George V. Voinovich, The State Board of Education was searching for a new Superintendent of Public Instruction, the top of the heap of education policy in The Buckeye State. As Assistant Superintendent, Phillis was interviewed by the State Board for the top job. At the time, the Board was a completely elected Board with no direct input from Ohio’s Governor. Ted Sanders was selected as Schools Chief, and Phillis left the Department to start The Coalition in April of the following year.
Just what is the Coalition? It is a taxpayer financed “Council of Government” that is housed innocuously in the Muskingham County Educational Services Center. The Coalition collects dues from other taxpayer financed school districts, and is entirely funded by Boards of Education using public tax money, as prescribed in Ohio Revised Code Section 167. Here is the Coalition’s website: http://ohiocoalition.org/index.php
By all accounts, The Coalition is essentially a one man show, along with his Bricker & Eckler attorney, Mr. Nicholas Pittner http://www.bricker.com/people/nicholas-pittner of Columbus. Bill Phillis is the producer, director, actor, stage hand, and cleans up the place at night. Several clerical support staff positions work at The Coalition, but no accounting of their salaries exists publicly, and the public face is always Mr. Phillis.
According to the last known comprehensive state audit, Phillis earns about the same amount of salary as Ohio’s Governor, approximately $140,000 annually, according to 2010 data: https://ohioauditor.gov/auditsearch/Reports/2011/Ohio_Coalition_for_Equity_and_Adequacy_of_School_Funding_10-Muskingum.pdf
Since, 1958, Mr. Phillis has been on taxpayer funded payroll both as a teacher, administrator, Department of Education employee, and now as a paid lobbyist for the Coalition. Each Coalition Member must render .50 per student as annual dues, and at various times, nearly 500 school districts in Ohio were Members of the Coalition, and according to the last audit, represented just shy of 450,000 school children.
And Mr. Phillis is consistent. There has never been a proposal or a dollar amount of taxpayer money for education that has satisfied him. No plan that has emerged in 30 years of public policy was “equitable or adequate.” Not one. His organization has never proposed a plan that would meet his high standards of equity and adequacy, although he consistently has been working with other public education groups on a “fix” but no fix has ever emerged.
Funding Ohio’s public schools at the original amount that the state’s hired expert Dr. John Augenblick recommended in 1999, about $4000.00 per child, was not enough. The number today is not enough. No number has ever been offered by Mr. Phillis and his group as the right number. In 25 years no dollar amount to fund schools per child has ever been offered as meeting Mr. Phillis’ standards.
The Coalition was the group that convinced a young Perry County Elementary School Student named Nathan DeRolph to sue the State of Ohio in 1996. The lawsuit, a high water mark of the Phillis led Coalition’s efforts, sought to declare Ohio’s school funding system unconstitutional, which the Court did in a 4-3 vote in 1997. The Decision was controversial as Ohio’s constitution simply states that a “thorough and efficient” method of funding must be established to run Ohio’s public schools.
The simplicity and vagueness of the Constitution, coupled with the response of state government that has quadrupled state spending for primary and secondary education, established a state facilities building fund that has spent billions of dollars rebuilding and building new schools, established specific aide formulas for poor students, established a minimum state floor determined by experts that guarantees all students at least the same education in each of Ohio’s public and chartered school districts.
Phillis has never believed that any of these approaches were “enough” and has never identified a final solution that his organization would accept on behalf of its Members. Phillis publicly stated that he would lead an effort to amend the State Constitution with “the right” plan, and that was supposed to be in 2007. Since that date, although the pledge is still on his group’s website, no such endeavor has ever been attempted. Just constant lobbying that the current Governor and Legislature –whomever that may be since Governors Taft, Strickland, and Kasich have come and some have gone, and scores of Legislators have been elected to serve are all, according to Phillis, “in gross violation of the rule of law.”
The Coalition has its rent free offices in the tony 100 South Third Street Building on Ohio’s Statehouse Square. The former U.S. Post Office Building that was the home office of the Republican Brahmins for decades, is an unusual location for a group that advocates for school districts who claim poverty from Ohio’s rural and urban areas.
Among its success, the organization touts include the Supreme Court victories as well as the resultant policy changes, including the school building and maintenance funds, provided mainly by Ohio’s portion of the National Tobacco Settlement funds brought about by The Administration of William J. Clinton, and a joint spending effort of Governor Bob Taft and The General Assembly in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Ohio’s smokers have funded new school buildings in all 88 Ohio counties.
Since 2003, when Ohio’s Supreme Court rejected the Coalition’s legal desire to impose a different taxing regime, Phillis and Company have been tackling new issues. He has become one of Ohio’s most vociferous opponents of public charter schools. The Coalition that once advocated for a new and better funding formula for schools, has now devoted much of its post-DeRolph efforts to excoriating other public schools. Perhaps, this answers the question as to why other public school boards are willing to pay dues to an organization of this nature, whose mission to solve the school funding issues in Ohio has become a 25 year quest, with a quarter million dollar annual budget, with almost 93% of its funding going to Mr. Phillis’ salary, expenses, and legal representation.
Since Ohio property tax dollars are paying for The Coalition, you could say that the Coalition subsists due to an “over reliance” on local property taxes, since it does not solicit private funds, only public monies that Boards of Education vote that goes towards dues and does not support local educational efforts for the children. The Coalition has passed every Auditor of State audit, but is it ever held “accountable” to its mission and effectiveness by the public school boards that spend taxpayer money to join this organization? Aside from paying salaries and legal fees, the Coalition has no additional meaningful advocacy. It does not offer continuing education credits, nor does it hold any public forums except for press conferences and committee testimony to speak against charter schools and current state funding of education. Its “Events” page on its website has no data except “Coming Soon” (perpetually it seems.) http://ohiocoalition.org/listings.php?category=machining&listing=2
The Coalition has never called for any accountability in the manner in which money is spent in Ohio’s traditional schools, only more money would “fix” Ohio’s schools. The Coalition does not only not discuss any accountability measures for non-chartered schools in Ohio, it actively works to only create a spotlight on perceived inadequacies in funding for public schools, and opposes any public community (charter) school participation.
Seventy-nine year old Bill Phillis has also become a blogger with the Left Wing Ohio-centric website known as “Plunderbund.” Phillis is very focused these days on community schools, Ohio’s legal charter schools that are run by private entities and usually at 30% to 50% less public funding than traditional schools, and with approximately the same results demographically.
Phillis writes for the blog, provides testimony against charter schools, and attends forums, rallies, hearings, and meetings to discuss his opposition to charter schools, all being funded by taxpayer money provided by the votes of school board members in districts who are Coalition Members. He is a popular anti-school choice spokesman for Ohio’s news media.
Rep. Brenner’s apparent crime against Mr. Phillis is the usage of property taxes to fund education. Phillis’ group claims to oppose the use of property taxes to fund education. Studies at the time of the DeRolph case showed that property taxes were actually the most stable of all taxes for public purpose, able to hold its value despite recession and most economic downturns. Unlike the fickle nature of income and sales tax, property tax by and large has retained its value over time. Phillis disagrees with those studies.
So the curious case of William Phillis goes on. With a quarter million dollar budget paid for by Ohio’s taxpayers, a left wing guest blog spot, a swanky high end office on Capital Square overlooking Ohio’s Governor and Legislators who “are in gross violation of state law,” and a never ending bully pulpit, The Coalition continues to march on.
Will it offer any solutions to supplement Rep. Brenner’s Constitutional Amendment? Can it resurrect the group of 11 school organizations that were supposed to “solve” Ohio’s school funding formula in 2007? The taxpayers involuntarily paying his salary may find out in 2017. One thing is for sure, when it comes to “accountability” The Coalition has not had to answer to taxpayers, nor sing for its supper. The property tax dollars keep flowing, and Mr. Phillis keeps going.