Fort Worth

Texas school finance ruling could come any day now

Former state Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth called on Greg Abbott to settle the state’s school finance lawsuit when he was attorney general.
Former state Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth called on Greg Abbott to settle the state’s school finance lawsuit when he was attorney general. AP

Mark Youngs can’t understand why his school district gets less money to spend per pupil than a neighboring district with similar student demographics.

It makes no sense, said Youngs, the Keller school district’s top finance official. Northwest, which abuts the city of Keller, gets almost $1,000 more a year to educate a school-aged child, records show.

“It is what it is,” Youngs said. “And we do not begrudge Northwest the money at all. It’s just an indication of the flawed school funding formulas.”

For decades, the state’s 1,000-plus school districts vied against one another for a bigger piece of the financial pie. Now two-thirds of state districts have joined forces to say the system is unfair because it doesn’t provide adequate funding for all.

The state’s high court is expected to rule any day now on a lawsuit filed by those districts, which could force Texas lawmakers into a special session next summer. The districts hope the high court’s ruling will prompt lawmakers to overhaul the system as early as June 2016.

“School funding formulas in Texas are at least 30 years old,” said J. David Thompson, Houston-based attorney for the moderate-wealth districts, such as Dallas and Fort Worth. “Some of our formulas were determined when Ronald Reagan was president and before the fall of the Berlin Wall.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, attorney general when the suit was filed, has operated on the contention that a majority of public school districts are better off today than they were almost four years ago. He says there’s no need for a court challenge.

Roughly four years ago, lawmakers cut $5.4 billion from the state’s education pie in order to balance the state’s post-recession budget. Abbott has said that the bulk of those cuts have been restored to district coffers.

“Lawmakers have substantially increased funding for the state’s school finance system,” the governor wrote Aug. 26 in his amicus brief to the high court.

In some cases, Abbott’s argument appears to hold sway. The Arlington school district got the largest financial boost of nearly a dozen Tarrant County school districts in 2014 compared to 2011, according to a Star-Telegram review of data from the Public Education Information Management System (PEIMS) at the Texas Education Agency.

From 2011 to 2014, Arlington’s per-student spending rose by $1,233, the most recent year data is available from TEA. Carroll, Eagle-Mountain Saginaw, Hurst-Euless-Bedford, Fort Worth, Keller and Mansfield also saw per-student increases of at least a few hundred dollars in state and local money combined.

But the 2014 data also show that some districts may be likely more behind than ever. From 2011 to 2014, the property-wealthy Northwest school district lost almost $1,900 per student in funding.

“The devil’s in the details,” Youngs said.

Many say that the current case in front of the high court is the most far-reaching school finance lawsuit in state history because it represents the broadest coalition of state districts.

“Now, there are other problems with the system that are affecting all of us,” said Thompson, who represents moderate-wealth districts, like Fort Worth.

Randall “Buck” Wood is the longtime Austin attorney for property-poor districts that filed the initial set of school finance suits, which began in the 1980s and led to Edgewood IV. Three decades later, Wood said he never thought that he would be on the same side as property-wealthy districts.

“Everybody tried to support everybody else,” said Wood, whose group also represents the Arlington school district. “There wasn’t any backbiting.”

Houston’s Mark R. Trachtenberg, attorney for property-wealthy districts, says it’s no longer an adversarial situation.

“In this case, again, the Legislature cut $5.4 billion out of public education in 2011 and it impacted property-wealthy and property-poor districts,” said Trachtenberg, who represents the Carroll, Grapevine-Colleyville, Northwest, Plano and Highland Park school districts.

“It’s been a long time since Edgewood IV,” he said.

Stimulus funds

After the recession shook up financial markets in 2008, President Barack Obama dispersed a roughly $800 billion federal stimulus package among states.

Texas provided billions of the stimulus money it received to school districts and municipalities, which got busy building infrastructure and engaging in capital improvement programs. The state also used a portion of its stimulus money to backfill a shortfall.

The Arlington district, among the state’s property-poor, used some of the money it received directly from the federal government to support operating costs.

“We were able to use that money to pay for costs that we already had in place,” said Cindy Powell, chief financial officer of the Arlington school district.

But by 2011, the state couldn’t hide the gaping hole. It was time to pay the piper. Arlington had to cut $24.6 million from its budget, Powell said.

“In the spring of 2011, we were crying the blues,” said Youngs, of the Keller school district, which was forced to cut $12 million to $14 million.

Across the state, about 15,000 schoolteachers lost their jobs, Thompson said.

Keller cut 200 positions, including maintenance workers, Youngs said. Arlington cut more than 500 positions, including teaching assistants and guidance techs. In the Grapevine-Colleyville district, as in others, high school students returned to a seven-period, traditional schoolday. For many years, students had benefited from a block schedule, which provided 90-minute class periods for deeper dives into curriculum.

“It was devastating,” said Melody Johnson, then-superintendent of the Fort Worth school district. “It left us in an untenable situation.”

There’s other evidence that districts haven’t fully recovered from the 2011-12 cuts, and many are having to rely more heavily on local revenue, they say.

The property-wealthy Carroll school district is expected to face a budget deficit this school year, spokeswoman Julie Thannum said. And even though local property values have been climbing, the state hasn’t pitched in any more money for years to the district, she said.

Rich and poor

Much has changed since the first finance lawsuit was filed in the early 1980s, Wood said. Back then, oil-rich East Texas school districts could build elaborate school buildings on a 5-cent property tax levy. Those wealthy school districts were able to enhance their schools with accoutrements, such as lighted tennis courts, swimming pools and golf courses, Wood said.

“We don’t have any super rich districts anymore; we just have rich districts and poor districts,” Wood said.

In the case before the high court, the litmus test will be whether school districts can prove that the state is not providing “adequate” funding to support their school systems.

The governor’s claim is that recent years of student performance data have shown that Texas has made “strides in education.” So it doesn’t need to rewrite the school finance law to improve student achievement.

But plaintiff school districts say Texas’ student achievement has been flat. The state has to ante up to edge up scores. Plaintiffs contend that the TEA has had to lower the bar for several passing scores on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness because a growing numbers of economically disadvantaged students have been unable to meet standards. In a Sept. 16 letter to the high court’s justices, plaintiffs stated that “STAAR and SAT performance data … show that Texas is moving backward, not forward.”

At a recent briefing to Fort Worth trustees, Thompson noted that Texas adds 80,000 to 85,000 new students every year. Many of those youngsters can’t speak English fluently and are socioeconomically disadvantaged.

“We presented some very strong evidence that our students are struggling and particularly our more vulnerable students,” Thompson told Fort Worth trustees.

Yamil Berard: 817-390-7705, @yberard