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Schools take state to court

By Christina Lane
Sept. 22, 2012 at 10 p.m.

A lawsuit regarding the way Texas finances public education is set to go to court in October, but neither East Texas school administrators nor lawmakers think it will settle the issue.

The fact it was filed at all is proof the system needs attention, said state Rep. David Simpson.

"The court should not have to tell us what to do," the Longview Republican said Friday. "That's our responsibility. ... You don't have to spend millions of dollars in court fees and legal fees to know we need to do the right thing."

At issue are inequities in the Texas education finance system, which result in school districts receiving varying amounts of money per student on an annual basis.

Two East Texas districts offer a vivid example of the situation: Hallsville ISD receives $6,046 per student, while Gladewater ISD receives $4,836 per student, under the state's funding formula.

Gladewater and Hallsville, 22 miles apart on U.S. 80, are among the state's lowest- and highest-paid districts in terms of per-child revenue.

Gladewater ranks in the bottom 100, while Hallsville is in the top 150 of Texas' 1,000-plus school districts.

Such disparities in school funding have prompted more than half the school districts in Texas to join in lawsuits against the state over the school finance formula. While the lawsuit is set to go to court Oct. 22, area superintendents and Simpson agree it will only be a first step in resolving the issue.

"It will not be settled once the final gavel sounds," said Union Grove Superintendent Brian Gray, who serves as a member of the litigation committee of the Texas Taxpayer and Student Fairness Coalition - one of the groups suing the state.

After the court makes a decision, Gray said, it will be put back in the hands of state legislators. But Gray isn't certain the issue will be resolved by the end of the coming legislative session. He said he expected any solution to be from two to four years down the road.

Gladewater ISD Superintendent J.P. Richardson said even after a court ruling, there would be an appeals process that could prevent legislators from even being able to work on finance during their session.

"Then, it's possible the governor will have to call a special session to fix school finance," Richardson said.

Simpson has heard the same talk.

"The word that I hear is that we're going to have a special session on school finance after the court tells us what do," he said. "But I think the Legislature should stress this head-on in the upcoming session. It ought to be a major issue. In fact, we should have been working on it through the interim."

Instead, what's happened through the interim is that the issue has grown even more pressing as more districts have been declared property-wealthy under the state's so-called Robin Hood funding plan, which requires wealthy districts to kick in funds to be redistributed to poor districts.

New data from the Texas Education Agency shows a record number of school districts now are considered property wealthy under Chapter 41 of the Texas Education Code. A total of 374 school districts are subject to the recapture provisions of the law during the 2012-13 school year, and 23 are appearing on the list for the first time. East Texas school districts considered property wealthy include Longview, Kilgore, Hallsville, Henderson, Tatum and Carthage.

"The fact that more districts qualify for this status than ever before reinforces the fact that our method of funding public education is broken," said Christy Rome, executive director of the Texas School Coalition. "Texas has just over 1,000 school districts and having close to 400 of them considered property wealthy shows that there is not enough money in the system overall."

Instead of fixing the finance system two years ago, the legislature cut $5.4 billion from public education.

"Rather than continuing to add recapture districts, the obvious solution is for the Legislature to adequately fund education," Rome said.

Simpson said he intends to seek "true freedom for our local schools."

"You have a checklist before you fly a plane. You check the fuel tank to see if fuel is there, and if it's not you don't just keep checking the fuel tank. You fix the leak," Simpson said. "I think our schools need more freedom - and what funding we do have should be equitable."

Simpson said he agreed with local educators that the current system is not equitable.

"The present system creates winners and losers," he said. "School districts receive much different amounts per pupil. There's a lot of inequities."

Richardson and Gray said they are optimistic there will be a long-term solution to education finance, but said it would be a few years down the road. Simpson said he's "doubtful" the issue will be disposed of in the upcoming session because legislators were not working on it in the interim.

Richardson said that appeared to be by design.

"I, personally, think they know there is a problem and that they know they're going to need to fix it," Richardson said. "I think they're waiting to be told by the court system that they have to fix the problem. But we have been preparing for the past four years for the days ahead of us. We have reduced the budget, we have reduced staffing, and we planned for the next two years not to receive any extra revenue from the state. We will be able to make it through the next two years without a problem."

Gray said his district, too, was prepared for the years ahead. Union Grove taxpayers approved a tax rate election a couple of years ago to raise the maintenance and operations portion of the tax rate to $1.17 per $100 valuation - the maximum value. Spring Hill taxpayers approved the same measure this year.

"That means there is no more revenue locally. We've got to get it from the state," Gray said. "We are trying to be fiscally conservative and provides kids with the best education in East Texas."



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