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East Texas superintendents react to school finance ruling

By Christina Lane
Feb. 4, 2013 at 10 p.m.

The system Texas uses to fund public schools violates the state's constitution by not providing enough money and failing to distribute the money in a fair way, a judge ruled Monday in a landmark decision that could force the Legislature to overhaul the way it pays for education.

Shortly after listening to closing arguments in a trial regarding public education funding, Judge John Dietz called the state's funding mechanism unconstitutional. A detailed, written decision is expected to be issued soon.

East Texas superintendents said the ruling is a "good first step," but they still expect it to be months before anything is settled.

"Obviously, it's a great victory early on for schools across our state and for the children in Texas," said Union Grove ISD Superintendent Brian Gray, who was one of 12 people on a litigation committee in the state. "It is commonly thought that the state will appeal the case directly to the Texas Supreme Court. We look for that to happen soon. But, we put a good, sound case together and Judge Dietz agreed with our line of thinking."

Longview ISD Assistant Superintendent Jody Clements said it is his hope that the case does not require an appeal.

"For the school districts that filed lawsuits, we did it to show our dissatisfaction with the system," Clements said. "First of all, it is not the court's responsibility to fund public education. It is the legislative branch's responsibility to do that. What we would hope is that our legislature would take it upon themselves to do what's right for the children of Texas. It is their responsibility to fund it, and we hope they'll do that now."

Longview, Pine Tree Spring Hill, White Oak, Kilgore, Gladewater, Sabine, Union Grove, Ore City, New Diana, Big Sandy, Leverett's Chapel, Harleton, Carthage and Tatum ISDs were among the more than 600 school districts that joined one of six groups each suing the state. Districts suing the state included those that are considered to be "property wealthy" and those that are considered to be "property poor." All of the lawsuits had a common theme that education in Texas is not adequately funded.

In 2011, the state Legislature cut $5.4 billion from school and education grant programs prompting about two-thirds of the school districts in Texas to sue the state. Attorneys representing the school districts have argued that restoring the funding alone is not enough because the system itself is flawed.

Attorneys for the school districts said the bottom 15 percent of the state's poorest districts tax an average of 8 cents more than the wealthiest 15 percent of districts but receive about $43,000 less per classroom.

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.

With the state legislature currently meeting, Gladewater ISD Superintendent J.P. Richardson said he does not expect to see any help in school finance during this session.

"I feel with an appeal in the making that the Legislature will wait until the Supreme Court rules on the appeal before our Legislature begins to repair the school finance system," Richardson said. "Then we will have to see if the governor calls a special session or allows Texas school districts to suffer another two years until the next legislative session. Gladewater ISD is prepared financially to withstand another three years if the governor so chooses not to call a special session. I personally think it is unacceptable of our Legislature to not repair school finance this session when we are currently in session instead of waiting until the appeal is ruled."

Richardson compared the system to a broken dam, saying that someone came and took a look at the dam, and noted that it was broken and in need of repair. Instead of repairing "the dam," Richardson expect the legislature to continue to ignore the problem until "the dam breaks, then I'll have to build a new dam."

"Judge Deitz has ruled the system is unconstitutional so we should repair the system now while we are in session," he said.

Attorneys representing the school districts that sued the state acknowledged the Texas Supreme Court will likely make the final ruling.

"While we expect that the Texas Supreme Court will ultimately have its say, there is no reason why the Legislature has to wait on the appeals process before addressing the constitutional deficiencies in the system," said Mark Trachtenberg, an attorney with Haynes and Boone, which represented some of the districts suing the state. "Because of statutory mandates, rising academic standards and declining state funding, districts have lost meaningful discretion over their local property tax rates and have no opportunity to provide enrichment programming desired by their local communities."

<em>- The Associated Press contributed to this report.</em>



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