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Area superintendent: Texas districts have made 'great case' in school finance lawsuit

By Christina Lane
Nov. 17, 2012 at 11 p.m.

For the past month, all eyes in the education circle have been pointed toward a Travis County courtroom, where more than half of all school districts in Texas are suing the state to seek equity in public school funding.

"It's disheartening that it's come to this," Longview ISD interim Superintendent James Wilcox said. "Our lawmakers - for years - have been responsible for the chronic under-funding of more than 1,000 of the school districts across Texas, including many of us around East Texas."

Longview ISD is among dozens of East Texas school districts that joined the legal fight.

Spring Hill, White Oak, Kilgore, Gladewater, Sabine, Union Grove, Ore City, New Diana, Big Sandy, Leverett's Chapel and Harleton ISDs also are among 416 school districts that joined the Texas Taxpayer and Student Fairness Coalition - one of six groups suing the state over education funding.

School districts each contributed an amount of money, typically based on their average daily student attendance, to mount the legal defense.

For example, White Oak ISD contributed $1 per its weighted average daily attendance - about $1,700 - to the cause. Pine Tree and Carthage ISDs joined Fort Bend ISD's group, while Tatum ISD joined the Calhoun County ISD group.

The lawsuits were filed after the Legislature cut $4 billion in state funding to schools and another $1.4 billion for grant programs in 2011.

Though there are slight differences among each of the petitions to the court, the groups are essentially seeking the same thing - an overhaul of the education finance system.

Since the trial opened, education groups have argued it is the Legislature's job to support and maintain an efficient system of free public education, as stated in the Texas Constitution. The system is broken, attorney Rick Gray told the Associated Press earlier this year.

"It is not only inadequate, it is irrational; it's unfair and, most importantly, it's unconstitutional," Gray told the Associated Press.

Recent testimony in the case, according to the Texas Taxpayer and Student Fairness Coalition, has included Wayne Pierce of the Equity Center. He stressed in testimony that public funding should go to public schools because there is a public service associated with public education.

Dan Casey of Moak, Casey and Associates, a company of Texas school finance and accountability experts, testified about inequities in the target revenue system of finance.

The target revenue system for funding schools assigns a random number value to the per-child cost of each school district in the state. The system results in school districts receiving varying amounts of money per student on an annual basis, such as Hallsville ISD receiving $6,046 per student, while Gladewater ISD receives $4,836 per student.

"We have a system that is inherently designed to break school districts," Longview ISD trustee Troy Simmons said earlier this week.m

Tracy Hoke, chief financial officer of Fort Bend ISD, testified about funding problems in her district because of mismatched property growth and funding stream, according to the Texas Taxpayer and Student Fairness Coalition. During a cross-examination, Hoke emphasized the importance of looking at the needs of students before assessing the cost to educate them.

"I think, overall, the school districts have made a great case to date," said Union Grove Superintendent Brian Gray, who is one of 12-people comprising a litigation committee in the state. "I think our lead witnesses, Dr. Wayne Pierce of the Equity Center and Lynn Moak of Moak and Casey, one of the foremost education finance groups in the state, have made a great case for equity and school funding. The state has had a difficult time poking any holes into the case."

The state attorney general's office intends to argue, according to pre-trial briefs, that because Texas emphasizes local control in its school districts, budget shortfalls are the fault of individual district's money management - not the system.

"We don't expect the lawsuit to wrap up until at least January, and we're fairly certain that the state will stonewall us with an appeal," Wilcox said. "That will likely mean that our broken school finance system will not get a quick look until a special session next year, or until the 84th Legislature, which is in 2015."

Gray said the case is expected to make its way to the Texas Supreme Court. In the coming weeks, Gray said the public can expert to hear more from residents - the taxpayers who are part of the litigation - and more superintendents.

State Rep. David Simpson said the lawsuit is something he regrets. He said the Legislature should have worked on the problem earlier instead of letting it go to court.

"School finance should be placed first," Simpson said. "It is the Legislature's responsibility to fix the issue."

Meanwhile, Wilcox said the lawsuit isn't something anyone in the education circle - and, he hopes, voters - will forget.

"We need to let our elected officials know that voters will hold them responsible for turning their backs on the school children of Texas," he said.



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