Saturday, July 04, 2009

School districts ready for financial reform

June 21, 2009

AUSTIN — All Texas school districts will get a state funding increase of at least $120 per student this fall, but superintendents already are dialing up talk about another school finance lawsuit to remedy what appears to be a chronic inequity between districts.

One of the hardest hit school systems in the Houston area is the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School district, which stands to get anywhere from $222 to $1,196 less per student than neighboring school districts.

Across the state, school superintendents say the distribution of resources is less equitable today than it was four years ago when a lawsuit resulted in the Texas Supreme Court rejecting the public school funding system.
Per student disparity

The court rejected it because so many districts had reached the maximum property tax rate allowable, which in effect, created an unconstitutional statewide property tax.

“What parents of children need to understand is that the funding of public education is in serious condition,” said John Folks, superintendent of San Antonio’s Northside Independent School District, the fourth largest in Texas.

The Edgewood Independent School District in Bexar County — lead plaintiff in a 1984 landmark school funding lawsuit, which the state lost — stands to get $1,239 less per student than Alamo Heights.

The disparity can result in tens of thousands of dollars per classroom and many millions of dollars per district.

“This is a very, very unfair distribution of dollars for school districts. Some school districts are getting way more than they should, and other districts are getting way less than they should. That’s just not palatable,” said Randall Buck Wood, an Austin lawyer and school-funding expert who has represented school districts in previous cases.

The Texas Constitution requires the Legislature to fund an “efficient” public school system because that preserves “the liberties and rights of the people.”

The current system is irrational, Wood said, adding, “Anything that is irrational, by definition, can’t be an efficient system.”
Staying at the bottom

Fast-growing Cy-Fair ISD, which receives less money per student than most other Houston-area school districts, cut 400 positions and $27 million last year.

“Those who were on the bottom are pretty much still on the bottom,” Superintendent David Anthony said of the school-spending plan.

But state academic standards have not gone down, nor have expectations and mandates, Anthony said.

Among neighboring districts, Cy-Fair will get $1,196 less per student than Tomball ISD; $587 less per student than Katy ISD; $507 less per student than Houston ISD; $504 less per student than Spring Branch; $246 less per student than Spring ISD and $222 less per student than Klein ISD.

Anthony recently made a controversial recommendation to reduce or eliminate the district’s cherished 20 percent optional homestead exemption, in effect since 1983, which comes on top of the constitutionally guaranteed homestead exemption of $15,000. The proposal is expected to be discussed at a board meeting this week.

While the exemption cost Cy-Fair millions of dollars a year, Anthony said his district is hurt under the state’s funding system, whether it grants the tax break or not.

“It does seem to make a lot of sense when you look at the equity issue,” he said. “It’s not efficient. It’s not equitable. It seems, in many cases, that those who were doing better are better off and those who are doing worse are, maybe, worse off.”

Cypress-Fairbanks will have about 104,000 students this fall, making it the third largest school district in the state. The district expanded by more than 4,000 students this year.

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