ARLINGTON -- Frustrated at the lack of state funding for schools and how it's distributed, Arlington school trustees Thursday night appeared ready to join like-minded districts that are planning to sue the state.
But trustees held off on making it official, delaying a decision until their Oct. 20 meeting.
Last month, the Lake Worth school district joined litigation spearheaded by the Equity Center, an Austin-based education research and advocacy group. The center has signed up about 150 districts and hopes to have 300 on board before suing late this month, an official said Thursday.
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.
Arlington school administrators did not make a formal recommendation to the board but had been talking with the Equity Center. Trustees said they were leaning toward joining the Equity Center's suit but wanted time to study all options.
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, said Lauren Cook, the center's communications director.
"The districts on the low end are clearly being treated inequitably," Cook said.
Most districts decried the Legislature's $4 billion reduction in state funding 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.
Many are now looking and raising questions about the disparities in how much districts received.
"You're talking about a lot of money," said Larry Shaw, executive director of the United Educators Association, which represents most Arlington teachers. "It's just not right for one district to get $700, $800 or $1,000 more per child. If any district should join the lawsuit, it's Arlington."
The Arlington district received $5,005 per student for 2011-12, according to the Equity Center's calculation of funding per student, which uses state and local revenue based on weighted average daily attendance and excludes bond-related taxes.
Most other Tarrant County districts received more, including Grapevine-Colleyville, $5,694; Eagle-Mountain Saginaw, $5,709; Carroll, $5,899; Hurst-Euless-Bedford, $5,469; Mansfield, $5,269; and Keller, $5,272.
Fort Worth's $5,098 allotment is about $1,075 less than Austin receives, almost $400 less than Dallas and roughly equal to Houston.
Arlington Associate Superintendent Cindy Powell said Arlington's funding per student is about $375 below the state average. She noted that making up that difference would give the district $29 million.
Board President Peter Baron asked her, "Are the children in Austin really worthy $86 million more than our kids?"
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.
"Constitutionally, the state is required to provide adequate funding for public school children, and clearly the cuts that were enacted in the last legislative session have created a legitimate constitutional challenge," said state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth.
"Unfortunately, what history has demonstrated in Texas is you've got to resort to some pretty tough tactics to get things done."
State Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, disagrees, saying funding isn't the issue -- in Texas or the nation.
"If money was the solution, we'd have the best-educated kids in the world, and we don't," he said. "Is funding too complicated? Yes, we do need to simplify."
Lake Worth decided to join litigation because "our backs are against the wall," said Superintendent Janice Cooper, whose district's maintenance tax rate has hit the state cap of $1.17 per $100 of assessed property value. "We don't have anywhere else to go."
Most other districts in the county are at $1.04, the maximum allowed without voter approval. And many are discussing litigation.
Fort Worth trustees recently met in executive session with Thompson -- who was involved in the last two school finance lawsuits -- to talk about his planned suit. School board President Ray Dickerson said that no decision had been made but that the district needs to be part of the solution.
Crowley administrators and trustees plan to discuss the possibility of joining a school funding lawsuit, spokesman Anthony Kirchner said.
Grapevine-Colleyville officials "have not formally discussed participation in any of the funding lawsuits currently being discussed," spokeswoman Megan Overman said.
Keller Superintendent James Veitenheimer said his district would likely join one of the two main groups suing the state.
"We want to look at which one best represents the interests of Keller," he said. "We're kind of the poster child for it because we have a low target revenue and got hit really with the last round of budget cuts."
He said the two groups had different perspectives: One focuses on the state providing inadequate funds for education, the other focuses on inequalities among districts.
"What we have is not adequate and not equal," Veitenheimer said, adding that officials and trustees plan to review the options in the next few months.
Staff writers Eva-Marie Ayala, Shirley Jinkins and Sandra Engelland contributed to this report.