Thursday, February 10, 2005

Schools: Financing Proposal Comes Up Short

Lawyer for group says House plan 'about $1,000 a kid light'

07:48 AM CST on Thursday, February 10, 2005

By TERRENCE STUTZ and ROBERT T. GARRETT / The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN – Lawyers for hundreds of school districts that successfully sued the state over education funding warned a House committee Wednesday that its preliminary reform plan falls more than $4 billion short of a court order to boost school funding.

Houston lawyer David Thompson and San Antonio lawyer David Hinojosa of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund both told the House Public Education Committee that its proposal to increase overall funding for schools by $1.5 billion next year will not provide much relief for districts. The plan would guarantee every district at least 3 percent more in revenue.

"The one concern that overrides all other concerns is the amount of money in this bill," said Mr. Thompson, who was once the state's chief education lawyer. "You're probably about $1,000 a kid light."

The committee proposal includes minimum guarantees of $4,550 per elementary and middle school student and $5,550 per high school student.

Mr. Hinojosa said the funding figures, particularly for younger children, are "nowhere near adequate to educate children" based on the federal and state requirements that school districts face.

The MALDEF lawyer also objected to provisions in the plan – drafted by House Public Education Committee Chairman Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington – that would limit the amount of "Robin Hood" sharing of local property taxes from some of the state's wealthiest districts. Those districts would have to surrender no more than 35 percent of property tax revenues.

Citing estimates that about 10 percent of districts would get more money than the rest, Mr. Hinojosa said it would result in 430,000 students "getting substantially more money for their education" than other students in Texas.

"There is no reason why certain students deserve more money than other students who attend public schools," he argued.

In earlier remarks, Mr. Grusendorf touted his plan as significantly improving funding equity among school districts while curtailing "Robin Hood" sharing of property taxes from $1.2 billion to $145 million a year.

The Legislature is under pressure this year to fix the troubled school finance system after a state judge ruled it was unconstitutional and did not provide enough money for districts to properly educate their students. The judge set a deadline of Oct. 1 to overhaul the $30 billion-a-year system; although the state has appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.

Lawmakers are trying to comply while also giving taxpayers relief on property taxes. Gov. Rick Perry on Wednesday renewed his push to reduce the maximum increase allowed in property tax appraisals to 3 percent a year, down from the current 10 percent.

Mr. Perry said his proposal has solid support in the House, which he predicted "will be for the taxpayers in the final analysis."

However, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, expressed less confidence that enough votes could be gained to pass a constitutional amendment lowering the cap to 3 percent. Amendments require a two-thirds vote in both houses and approval by a majority of voters.

"I wouldn't say anything's for sure right now," Mr. Keffer said.

Cities and counties oppose lowering the cap. They argue that budget cuts in areas such as social services have left them with more responsibilities and no way to pay.

Mr. Perry has touted other taxpayer protections, and if they win support from lawmakers, he said, he might accept a cap that is greater than 3 percent. Mr. Keffer said one such idea might be to make it easier for residents to force a recall election of officials who repeatedly increase property taxes.

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