Austin judge dreams of easy school finance case

Posted Friday, Jun. 07, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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norman Austin state District Judge John Dietz is a man with a problem.

From October to February, Dietz heard 45 days of testimony and arguments in a bundle of lawsuits against the state's public school funding system, then he declared that system unconstitutional.

Now the Legislature has made significant changes. If Gov. Rick Perry signs those changes into law, Dietz has little choice but to hold a new hearing to update the trial record before sending his decision on up to the state Supreme Court. He understandably doesn’t want to rehear every argument.

Dietz told attorneys for school districts and the state Wednesday that they should get together and see if they can agree on what needs to be re-examined and how and when.

Sorry, judge, it’s not that easy.

First, the odds of two attorneys standing in a Wal-Mart parking lot and agreeing on whether the sun is shining are a long shot. Even scheduling the meeting might not work out.

More importantly, the attorneys need guidance, and Dietz is the only one who can give it.

After all that testimony, expert opinion, statistical information and, of course, attorney arguments during the 45-day trial, Dietz ruled immediately that the Texas school finance system does not meet the requirements of the state constitution.

Funding is neither adequate to meet the required “general diffusion of knowledge” nor distributed among more than 1,000 school districts in a way that gives them all an equal shot at meeting state-set educational goals, the judge said.

He promised a more detailed written ruling but hasn’t yet delivered it. Meanwhile, the Legislature allocated an additional $3.4 billion for schools in the next two-year budget and made other changes that could reduce spending requirements.

The goal of a new hearing would be to determine how much those changes have altered the playing field.

That’s where Dietz owes the attorneys more than he has given them so far.

Written legal rulings in cases like this contain a key section called “findings of fact and conclusions of law.” It’s the judge’s list of what he believes was proved during the trial and how it fits with the way the law is written and interpreted in previous court rulings.

If these attorneys are to show how things have changed since February, Dietz must answer the question “Changed from what?”

He should issue his findings of fact and conclusions of law as of the end of the trial so the attorneys know where they’re starting from.

Even then, a new hearing won’t be easy.

The trial included complicated written evidence and oral testimony from an array of experts on education finance. Attorneys need experts to back up their arguments.

Experts need time to crunch data and compile their conclusions.

Then there’s the problem of no data.

The most recent evidence in the trial that started in October was from the previous school year. Much of the information on Texas school performance is at least 2 years old.

New legislative appropriations won’t take effect until Sept. 1. The best data to be hoped for in a new hearing will be projections of the potential impact. That’ll be fodder for attorney disagreements.

Dietz has scheduled another meeting with attorneys on June 19. Guessing among some of those attorneys is that a new hearing won’t happen before fall.

Finally, legislative policy has stepped away from formula funding for schools, essentially telling administrators not to consider any of these appropriations as solid when budget time rolls around next time.

That means the school funding fight is never finished.

Mike Norman is editorial director of the Star-Telegram. 817-390-7830 Twitter: @mnorman9

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