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Wealthy Texas school districts sue over school funding

By April Castro, Associated Press
Dec. 9, 2011 at 10 p.m.


AUSTIN - A coalition of about 120 property-wealthy Texas school districts sued the state Friday, alleging its system of paying for public education is inadequate and unconstitutional.

Six school districts, ranging from Lewisville and Richardson in North Texas to Aransas County on the coast, are named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit. The lawsuit is being handled by the Texas School Coalition, which is made up of school districts that give property tax money back to the state under the so-called Robin Hood school funding plan.

Sixty school districts have joined the suit, which proclaims "the Texas school finance system has reached a crisis stage again."

The schools contend that because so many districts are taxing at the maximum allowable rate, the school property tax has effectively become a statewide property tax, which is unconstitutional in Texas.

The state is "co-opting the school districts' taxing authority, so it's become a de facto state property tax," said Mark Trachtenberg, one of the attorneys representing the school districts. He said about 20 percent of about 1,030 school districts in Texas are taxing at the maximum rate of $1.17 per $100 of property value. Many districts in the coalition can't tax above a rate of $1.04, which requires voter approval. Trachtenberg said voters aren't likely to approve higher taxes when the revenue would go back to the state rather than being spent locally.

The schools also argue the Legislature hasn't been putting enough money into the system to meet the constitutional mandate for an "adequate" education.

"They're failing to provide the resources to provide an adequate education under the state's own standards," attorney John Turner said.

Lawmakers did not pay for about $4 billion in enrollment growth during the most recent legislative session, despite an estimated growth of about 80,000 students a year.

The Legislature also cut about $1.4 billion in grant programs such as full-day prekindergarten, after-school tutoring and dropout prevention programs.

The lawsuit claims the massive cuts have resulted in the loss of thousands of teachers and support staff and led many districts to seek waivers allowing for bigger classes at a time when state testing requirements are getting tougher.

Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman at the Texas Education Authority, said the agency will discuss the lawsuit with Attorney General Greg Abbott, whose office represents the state in litigation.

"Ultimately, school funding is an issue that will be resolved by the courts and the Legislature," she said. The TEA and Education Commissioner Robert Scott are named as defendants in the lawsuit.

Another coalition of schools filed a similar lawsuit in October, contending that the system is unfair, inefficient and unconstitutional.

That one accuses lawmakers of turning a blind eye on the state's troubled school financing system for years and exacerbating the flaws by slashing public school spending.

The school funding system in Texas has been a grievance since the battle of the Alamo, when one of the Texans' complaints was Mexico's failure to establish a public education system. Since then, the Legislature has only undertaken major reform efforts when ordered to do so by the courts.

Most recently, lawmakers implemented a new tax structure, reducing reliance on property taxes and creating a new business tax. Lawmakers adopted the overhaul during a 2006 special legislative session, under court threat of closing public schools. At the time, the Texas Supreme Court warned that the plan would only be a temporary fix.

The suing school districts are Calhoun County, Abernathy, Aransas County, Frisco, Lewisville and Richardson. In addition to the TEA and Scott, Comptroller Susan Combs and the State Board of Education are named as defendants.

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