School districts prevail over state in financing suit

Posted Monday, Feb. 04, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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AUSTIN - An Austin district judge, siding with hundreds of Texas schools districts, ruled Monday that the state's school financial system is inequitable and unconstitutional.

The decision could ultimately force the Legislature, which is now in session, to make fundamental changes in the state's school finance system, but several experts said there may be little impact until after a final decision by the Texas Supreme Court.

Participants on both sides of the case said appeals are inevitable.

"I think it's a great start," said Fort Worth Superintendent Walter Dansby, echoing the sentiments of other North Texas school officials. "If we're going to make the improvements we need to make, then we're going to have to have proper funding."

More than 600 schools districts, including Fort Worth and several other North Texas school systems, filed a total of six lawsuits after the 2011 Legislature cut $5.5 billion in state education assistance, forcing many district to lay off teachers and cut services. Attorneys for the districts argued that the system is essentially broken.

District Judge John Dietz heard 44 days of testimony and announced his decision from the bench just minutes after the close of final arguments.

"There is no free lunch," he asserted. "We either want increased standards and are willing to pay the price, or we don't."

Dietz agreed with the schools' arguments that the funding system violates multiple provisions in the Texas Constitution that require equitable and efficient funding that would give all students an equal opportunity to succeed, regardless of a school district's tax wealth. He also said that the school system has generated an illegal state property tax by imposing a growing tax burden on local districts. .

"This is a victory for the children of Texas public schools," said Robin Ryan, Grapevine-Colleyville school district superintendent. "We felt all along that the state funding system for public schools was unconstitutional.

State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, who has repeatedly assailed Gov. Rick Perry and Republican leaders in the Legislature for the education cuts two years ago, said the Legislature now has a "constitutional obligation" to restore the cuts. Dietz' ruling, she said, should "serve as a wakeup call" to Perry and Republican legislative leaders.

"His ruling that our schools are not adequately funded is an indictment of the current leadership's failure to safeguard our children's education and Texas' economic future," she said. "Judge Dietz's decision echoes concerns that I have heard from parents and teachers in my district and across the state."

But Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the Senate's presiding officer, said he disagreed with the ruling and predicted an immediate appeal to the State Supreme Court.

"While we await their final ruling, I will continue to work with Gov. Perry, Speaker [Joe] Straus, and the Legislature to continue to support our students and improve public education," he said.

A group of interveners in the suit, including the Texas Association of Business, also expressed disappointment with the ruling, saying the decision focuses on "adequacy and equity for schools instead of adequacy and equity for students." Attorney Christopher Diamond of Houston said the group, which also includes parents and education advocates pushing for efficiency in public schools, will "immediately move forward" to appeal the case to the Supreme Court.

Houston Attorney David Thompson, who represented a group of schools that included Fort Worth, said the ruling could force legislators to take a look at restoring the education cuts from 2011 but he acknowledged the Legislature will more than likely wait for the Supreme Court ruling before addressing the issues raised by Dietz' ruling.

Thompson represented 84 districts with more than 1.8 million students. He said he was "relieved, pleased, excited, and gratified" with the decision.

Carlos Vasquez, the Fort Worth school board's first vice president, said he wants the Legislature to act now rather than waiting for a final decision through the appeals process.

"I hope it can do something to benefit us this next year," said Vasquez. "The Legislature can act on this before the courts act on this. I hope they come to the understanding that it is important to fund education and for them to do it before the courts give them an ultimatum. They can correct this right now. The are in session."

Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams called the bench ruling "simply one step on this litigation's path."

"All sides have known that, regardless of the outcome at the district level, final resolution will not come until this case reaches the Texas Supreme Court," he said.

After announcing his findings point-by-point from the bench, Dietz said he would release an omnibus opinion with more details within four to six weeks.

Keller Superintendent Randy Reid said that the ruling was not unexpected and that the evidence in support of the school's case was "pretty overwhelming." The Keller school district was part of the suit filed by Thompson, which included Fort Worth, Dallas and Denton school districts.

Staff writers Sandra Englelland and Melissa Winn contributed to this article.

Dave Montgomery is chief of the Star-Telegram's Austin Bureau

Twitter: @daveymontgomery

Jessamy Brown, 817-390-7326

Twitter: @jessamybrown

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