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Union Grove ISD jumps in legal fight over state's school finance system

By Christina Lane
Sept. 13, 2011 at 11 p.m.

Union Grove ISD has joined the fight of Texas school districts ready to sue the state because of the education finance system.

Superintendent Brian Gray said Tuesday that Union Grove trustees authorized spending no more than $1 per its 702-student weighted average daily attendance to join other Texas public schools in education finance litigation to fight for equity among schools.

"If you look at school funding, some school districts are funded at the lowest of low levels and others are funded at astronomically high levels," Gray said. "We want to make sure every student across the state is funded equally with opportunities for a quality education."

The Equity Center, an organization of more than 600 Texas public school districts, is likely going to force the litigation, particularly in light of the most recent legislative session that saw state lawmakers slash funding to public education.

"Actions taken during the regular and special session of the 82nd Legislature put public education in an untenable financial position," Wayne Pierce, executive director of the Equity Center, said in an Aug. 26 statement. "And, there are clear indicators that this is not a short-term problem, necessary only to deal with a temporary budget shortfall, but what members of the leadership have termed 'the new normal.' "

The lawsuit will attack legislative actions regarding equity, arbitrary fund distribution scheme, adequacy and tax operates as a state property tax, according to the Equity Center.

"It is apparent to anyone reviewing the distribution of state funds to school districts that there is no rhyme or reason why comparable districts are receiving very different amounts of state funding," according to the Equity Center.

Taxes constitute part of that equity, according to officials at the center. The state capped maintenance and operations tax rates for schools at $1.04 per $100 valuation. Districts can call a rollback election to raise the rate to $1.17 per $100 valuation.

"Presently, there are over 200 school districts in Texas which are at the $1.17 tax cap," according to the Equity Center. "Almost all of these districts are low wealth districts."

"It's not fair for Union Grove taxpayers to pay $1.17 and others not to," Gray said. The district's total tax rate is $1.2914, adding in the debt service portion of the tax rate.

South of Union Grove in a similarly-sized school district, Tatum ISD taxpayers pay $1.04 per $100 valuation in total tax rate. Tatum's maintenance and operations tax rate is 78 cents per $100 valuation because the state permits Tatum to compress its rate below the state-mandated maintenance rate of 94 cents. Tatum's debt service tax rate is 26 cents per $100 valuation.

Tatum's tax base, however, is about $1.7 billion, making it a property-wealthy school, whereas Union Grove is not. Union Grove's tax base is about $239 million. Union Grove's average taxable home value is $93,899, while Tatum's is $58,960.

Though the state has said its finance system is meant to equalize funding, property-wealthy Tatum ISD and Union Grove receive almost the same amount in state funding. Tatum gets $5,479 per weighted average daily attendance, while Union Grove gets $5,440 per student.

Even though the state provides $39 difference in state funding for each district, Union Grove's average tax bill is $1,215, while Tatum's is $613.

Tatum ISD Superintendent Dee Hartt has said the district is analyzing its options to determine whether to participate in the lawsuit.



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