Gainesville Daily Register

October 31, 2011

Local schools challenge state finance system

By Heather Pilkington, Register Staff Writer
Gainesville Daily Register

Cooke County — According to the Equity Center’s website, the center represents the financial interests of the school districts involved and is leading the lawsuit. Center representatives argue that the state’s funding system is flawed because school districts with the same tax rates can have huge variations per student due to property value differences. Their goal is to convince state officials to balance the per-student equity, which would allow poorer school districts to provide the same level of education as more affluent schools.

According to the National Education Access Network website, the Texas Taxpayer and Student Fairness Coalition, a group of more than 150 school districts, students, parents and businesses, filed a wide-ranging petition against the Texas State Commissioner of Education and the State Board of Education on Oct. 11.

The petition claims that the current system for funding public education violates the equal protection, suitability and state property tax provisions of the state constitution. The lawsuit is filed as “The Texas Taxpayer & Student Fairness Coalition v. Texas.”

Era Superintendent Jeremy Thompson said the board of trustees voted unanimously to join the Texas Taxpayer and Student Fairness Association lawsuit that challenges the constitutionality of the finance system during the Oct. 17 board meeting.

 He also said there are two or three separate lawsuits involving 250 or more school districts in the state of Texas. Eventually, they will be combined into a single suit.

Thompson explained the arguments for the lawsuit are adequacy and inequity. Adequacy because the money the state provides in inadequate to run public school districts, particularly to meet the expectation the state and the federal government mandates; and inequitable because the current funding per Average Daily Attendance (ADA) has “no rhyme or reason” for how each school receives different amounts per weighted ADA.

“The last lawsuit was 2006,” he said. “And now there is no way to increase the revenue.”

Thompson continued to explain that the state does recognize that it costs more to educate some students. Public education is weighed based on the cost per student. The only way to increase revenue is to increase enrollment. A declining enrollment means declining revenue.

“The whole process is convoluted and confusing,” he said. “From a school administrative position, it is hard to explain to taxpayers in a way that makes sense.”

Thompson explained that a lawsuit is necessary; the government had opportunities to provide adequate funds and did not address the issues. A lawsuit, he added, is the only way to get the government to act.

There are over 1,000 school districts in the state of Texas, the state is adding 80,000 new students per year on average over the last decade, and funding remains the same.

Thompson said the No Child Left Behind Act only serves to add to the inequality of school funding by forcing students at schools with less funding to meet the same requirements as students in wealthier districts.

During the last legislative session, the state cut 6 percent of its public education funding.

“It is expected next year another 2 percent will be funded and many schools already have to dive into their fund balances to survive,” he said. “After you start using your savings it’s only a matter of time before you have to make drastic cuts that will affect the classroom.

“These are two separate issues (adequacy and equity) that are not functional or fair, but they go hand-in-hand,” he added.

Valley View ISD board briefs from Sept. 17 explained that Valley View ISD joined the lawsuit, making it the first district in Cooke County to join.

Others are following suit.

“I talked about it and informed the board about the issue,” Muenster Independent School District Superintendent Clay Richerson. “Pending the vote, Muenster ISD will be joining the lawsuit.”

Gainesville Independent School has also confirmed that they will discuss whether to join or abstain from the suit at their Nov. 21 school board meeting.

Thompson said that he believed if the court favored the district it would not be the court deciding a solution, but rather the court mandating that the legislature must find a viable solution for the issue.

For more information on the lawsuit, visit www.equitycenter.org.