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Hundreds Of School Districts Sue Texas Over Funding

By Bill Zeeble, KERA News

Dallas, TX – Texas school districts say they're struggling after lawmakers cut more than $4 billion from the education budget earlier this year. Some, like Cedar Hill, tried making up the loss with a tax. Hundreds of other districts are now preparing to sue the state like they did a decade ago, to restore funding. KERA's Bill Zeeble reports.

Cedar Hill ISD hoped it had a solution to its shrinking budget, smaller by $3 million after this year's state funding cuts. With voter approval, it would raise taxes to make up for the lost state money and pass a bond package for items like facility improvements, a softball and baseball complex, and an energy efficiency system.

Sonya grass: For us to take care of our students we asked our voters to support us in that and it didn't work out this time.

Sonya Grass is Vice President of Cedar Hill's school board. Because voters said no, she says the district must cover pricey maintenance repairs, like a busted air conditioner, out of its diminished general budget. She hopes education quality won't suffer. Voter Richard Byrd hopes the same, but wasn't surprised by the vote. He voted against the November 8th bond and school tax measures.

Byrd: Because I think they've got people there that don't realize the economy of today, They don't realize there are people in Cedar Hill, we have a lot of foreclosures in Cedar Hill.

It turns out Cedar Hill was not the only district trying to make up for lost revenue. Thirty percent of Texas school districts that floated bond or tax measures this month lost at the polls. To many, that was like insult on top of injury, because school districts statewide say funding cuts approved in June will hurt their students. Many are fighting back. 320 mostly property- poor districts assembled in The Texas Taxpayers and Student Fairness Coalition are suing the state. At least two more groups are expected to file soon. The Coalition says lawmakers failed their constitutional mandate to adequately fund public education. Lauren Cook, with the group, cites four violations. She says current education funding is inefficient, inadequate, amounts to an illegal state property tax, and is inequitable. Cook explains the equity argument, which she believes will be unique to her group. The amount per pupil the state gives districts varies widely across Texas.

Cook: So right now, we have per-student funding levels that range from below $5,000 a student all the way to over $10,000 a student.

Another group of at least 40 school districts, including Plano and Lewisville, expects to file suit after Thanksgiving. Attorney Mark Trachtenberg represents them. He was among attorneys who won the 2005 case that led to current school funding. He says this year's legislative funding cuts are unconstitutional.

Mark Trachtenberg: When you take $4 billion out of the foundation school program and you take an additional $1.4 billion out of programs like Pre-K and dropout prevention and after-school programming targeted at kids that need the most help, there's no question the legislative actions had a serious, harmful effect on public education in Texas.

There's yet a third group of districts planning to sue the state using similar arguments. Outgoing Senator Florence Shapiro, who chairs the Education Committee, says lawsuits are nothing new, but quality education is not just about money.

Shapiro: If money were the answer, then the Washington DC school district would have the finest school system in the nation, because they spend $12,000 per student. And they still have issues. But 441 the lawsuits are there. We have had this happen now over the last 20 years probably four times and the legislature does have a gun to its head as they do every time and they usually respond. In our last legislative session, the gun to its head was less money. Will that change in 2013? I don't think so. Did we make some significant changes this last legislative session? I think the answer is yes.

But attorneys say the state can find some more money. By the time it all plays out in the courts, another budget year or two may pass, leaving districts like Cedar Hill without any additional funding relief from Austin.

The Texas Attorney General's office defends any suits against the state. It has declined comment.

Email Bill Zeeble

Original Petition and Request for Declaratory Judgment

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.