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Texas school districts sue state over finance system

10/11/2011 11:43 PM

10/12/2011 7:10 AM

AUSTIN -- A coalition of Texas school districts has sued the state, arguing that the school finance system is unfair, inefficient and unconstitutional, according to the filing announced Tuesday.

Plaintiffs say a "patchwork" funding system that has been cobbled together over the last several years doesn't treat Texas school children or taxpayers fairly.

The lawsuit, which is expected to be the first of many, was filed by the Texas Taxpayer and Student Fairness Coalition, which represents more than 150 Texas school districts. The suit also names seven school districts as plaintiffs.

It's the first lawsuit since lawmakers slashed $4 billion in public school funding over the summer.

"Succeeding in this lawsuit and attaining an equitable school finance system would enhance our ability to close the achievement gap and offer more educational opportunities for our students," said Robert Duron, San Antonio superintendent. "There is still debate about how to measure the adequacy of the system, but I have no doubt that our current funding system is inequitable."

The lawsuit asks the court to declare that the state's school finance system violates the Texas Constitution.

The lawsuit has been brewing for months. Plaintiffs had hoped that the Legislature would address the school funding system during its most recent session. But facing a $27 billion budget shortfall, the Republican-controlled Legislature approved $4 billion in cuts to schools in June, the first decrease in per-student spending in Texas since World War II.

Lauren Cook, a spokeswoman for the Equity Center, which is organizing the coalition, said plaintiffs hope that a trial court rules in time to give guidance to lawmakers before the next regular legislative session in 2013.

Most districts decried the $4 billion reduction for school districts for the 2011-13 biennium. But many were too busy slashing their own budgets and staff to protest how money is distributed to each district. Now, they're raising questions about the disparities in how much districts received.

The school districts selected to file the suit were Hillsboro, Hutto, Nacogdoches, Pflugerville, San Antonio, Taylor and Van.

Lake Worth was the only Tarrant County school district to join the lawsuit. The Brock district in Parker County joined as well.

Arlington district officials have been talking with the Equity Center, an Austin-based education research and advocacy group, but delayed a decision last week.

Separately, a Houston law firm headed by David Thompson is preparing to file a similar suit on behalf of school districts later in the fall.

Fort Worth trustees recently met with Thompson -- who was involved in the last two school finance lawsuits -- to talk about his planned suit. Crowley administrators and trustees plan to discuss the possibility of joining a school funding lawsuit, and Keller Superintendent James Veitenheimer said his district would likely join one of the two main groups suing the state

Among the defendants named in this week's lawsuit was Texas Education Agency Commissioner Robert Scott. A spokeswoman for the TEA did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

Six major lawsuits have targeted funding inequities in Texas over the past 40 years, according to the National Education Access Network, which tracks school finance litigation and reform efforts. Despite some progress, the state's funding formula has become arbitrary and intractable, its critics say.

The two lawsuits will target structural funding deficiencies that prevent revenue from keeping up with ever-increasing education standards. The Equity Center suit will have a little more emphasis on the needs of lower-wealth districts,

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

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