AUSTIN -- A coalition of about 60 property-wealthy Texas school districts sued the state Friday, saying its system of paying for public education is inadequate and unconstitutional.
Six districts ranging from Lewisville and Richardson in North Texas to Aransas County on the coast are named as plaintiffs. The lawsuit is being handled by the Texas School Coalition, which is made up of 120 districts that give property tax money to the state under the so-called Robin Hood funding plan.
"The Texas school finance system has reached a crisis stage again," the lawsuit says.
The schools argue that because so many districts are taxing at the maximum allowable rate, the school property tax has effectively become a statewide property tax, which is unconstitutional in Texas.
The state is "co-opting the school districts' taxing authority, so it's become a de facto state property tax," said Mark Trachtenberg, an attorney for the districts. He said about 20 percent of about 1,030 districts in Texas are taxing at the maximum rate, $1.17 per $100 of property value. Many districts in the coalition can't tax above $1.04. Taxing above that rate requires an election, and Trachtenberg said voters aren't likely to approve higher taxes when the revenue would go to the state rather than being spent locally.
The schools also argue that the Legislature hasn't put enough money into the system to meet the constitutional mandate for an "adequate" education.
"They're failing to provide the resources to provide an adequate education under the state's own standards," attorney John Turner said.
'With one voice'
Among the property-wealthy Metroplex districts in the lawsuit are Northwest, Grapevine-Colleyville, Highland Park and Plano.
Northwest Superintendent Karen G. Rue said the district that straddles Tarrant, Wise and Denton counties has sent the state $268.8 million over 10 years and expects to pay $17.2 million in 2011-12.
Rue said the school finance system is not keeping up with the state's growing student population in the face of increased academic expectations.
Lawmakers did not pay for about $4 billion in enrollment growth during the most recent legislative session despite an estimated growth of about 80,000 students a year. The Legislature also cut about $1.4 billion in grant programs such as full-day prekindergarten, after-school tutoring and dropout prevention programs.
The lawsuit claims the massive cuts have resulted in the loss of thousands of teachers and support staff and led many districts to seek waivers allowing bigger classes.
"We are advocating for the funds to do what is necessary to support children in this state. Our board felt strongly that they must join and speak with one voice with other districts in the state so the resources in the state of Texas are identified and provided," Rue said Friday. "We feel that virtually every school district in the state of Texas is underfunded, some woefully."
The Southlake Carroll district is also property wealthy but is not a plaintiff. Carroll trustees are weighing whether to join any of the school finance lawsuits and are seeking to have representatives meet with the board to discuss the options, a spokeswoman said.
Another coalition of schools filed a similar lawsuit in October, calling the system unfair, inefficient and unconstitutional.
That one accuses lawmakers of turning a blind eye to the troubled school financing system for years and exacerbating the flaws this summer when they slashed public school spending by more than $4 billion to close a massive budget gap.
School funding in Texas has long been a grievance. The Legislature has undertaken major reform efforts only when ordered by the courts.
Staff writer Jessamy Brown contributed to this report.