Why school finance litigation?

First of all I want to thank all of you that donated gift cards or money this past Friday night for the Smithville Fire victims. Smithville Superintendent Rock McNulty called me Monday morning to express his and the community’s gratitude for the donation.

At our regular monthly board meeting this past Monday night the Rockdale ISD resolved to enter into litigation regarding the State of Texas School Finance System with the Law Firm of Thompson and Horton LLP. As a district we followed the statewide discussion for the need of a lawsuit for over a year. Since the last legislative session in July we have attended meetings and stayed abreast of the specific claims of pending litigation that focuses on the inefficiency of the Texas School Finance System.

A major question for stakeholders is why a school district would need to file a lawsuit against the State of Texas? The answer is clear; the State of Texas School Finance System is not meeting the requirements of the Texas Constitution. State legislators are required to follow the Texas Constitution which includes funding public schools appropriately. Article VII, Section I states “A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and the rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools”.

This is not the first time public schools have gone to court to get the legislature to fulfill its requirements. School finance litigation has occurred seven times since 1973 with six required changes to the school finance system. In other words, the Texas Legislature must be forced to accomplish one of its major responsibilities.

The tone for this lawsuit is set by several major problems with the current system. The legislature created a more rigorous assessment (STAAR) and accountability system that will be implemented this year. At the same time they cut funding to public schools by a total of $5.3 billion; $4 billion to the Foundation School Program and $1.3 billion to special programs and grants. For the first time since the Gilmer-Aiken Act of 1949 the legislature failed to fund what is required under current law. Rockdale ISD’s state funding was cut about 7.5 percent for two consecutive years.

Another problem with the school finance system is the inequity of funding that is caused by the last legislative “funding fix” in 2006. Rockdale ISD receives about $300 per student less than the average funded Texas school district because of Target Revenue, which is almost a half of a million dollars less than the average funded Texas school district receives. Target Revenue was a dollar/student amount that was assigned in 2006 as a result of the legislature’s idea of fixing school funding. What is ironic is that the State of Texas recognizes our district as a “property wealthy” district so are required to send money back to the state this year under the Robin Hood plan even though we are funded below average per student.

There is not enough space in this article to explain all of the issues with the school finance system. If we don’t stand up and “fight back” in some way the only choices our school district has is to continue to cut programs and personnel or ask the voters for a higher maintenance and operation tax rate, or both. As I have explained to our legislators on numerous occasions this is not a good option for a county with over 10 percent unemployment. The level of funding must be brought up to meet the academic expectations of the legislature and it must be more equitable to benefit all of our students.

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2011-10-20 digital edition

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