It’s been a frustrating time for people who fight for more money for Texas’ property-poor school districts.
They were disappointed last year when the Supreme Court decided the state’s school finance system, although in great need of improvement, meets constitutional standards.
Now they’ve run up against what they say is an extreme injustice they just won’t take.
On Feb. 1, Education Commissioner Mike Morath instituted a new policy that benefits a few wealthy school districts to the tune of $110 million in the current school year — $60 million for the Houston school district alone — taken directly from the limited school funds the poor districts would like to share.
“It is estimated that the recent actions of the Commissioner could cost the state close to $1 billion for the 2018-2019 school year and that cost will only increase in future years,” Richard Gray IV, an attorney for the poor districts, said in a news release.
Two school districts, La Feria ISD in the Rio Grande Valley and Joaquin ISD in far east Texas, filed suit Thursday in Austin, attempting to stop Morath’s policy change. A spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency declined to comment Friday on the lawsuit.
Property taxes are the largest source of revenue for Texas schools. Policies resulting from legal battles more than two decades ago force property-wealthy districts to share revenue with property-poor districts.
Wealthy districts could offer local-option homestead exemptions to lessen the tax burden on individual homeowners, but that wouldn’t reduce their obligation to send funds to poor districts.
TEA could reimburse the wealthy districts for half of what they lost to local-option homestead exemptions, but only with a special legislative allocation or from money left over in school finance accounts. Chances were slim and none.
Morath has changed that. Starting this year, wealthy districts will get those reimbursements as standard procedure. That sparked Thursday’s lawsuit.
No wealthy Tarrant County districts have optional exemptions to be reimbursed. Unless the lawsuit succeeds, they now have plenty of incentive to adopt them.