Group of Texas schools sue state to get more funds

Reuters News
Posted: Dec 09, 2011 6:23 PM
Group of Texas schools sue state to get more funds

(Reuters) - Six so-called property wealthy school districts in Texas on Friday sued the state to get more funding, arguing that the state had failed to adequately finance them, the schools' attorney said on Friday.

The lawsuit, brought in Travis County District Court, also claims that the state has "co-opted" the local taxing authority, in effect imposing an illegal statewide property tax, the attorney, Mark Trachtenberg, said by telephone.

Texas, like many states, has had to fight court battles over school funding before, partly because its constitution requires the state to provide an adequate education.

However, Texas' property wealthy districts are not necessarily located in well-to-do suburbs, the way they often are in other states. In Texas, a school district can meet this definition because, for example, it is home to a refinery.

As a result, a Texas property wealthy school might be blue-collar, or have a high number of minority, low-income or at-risk students, Trachtenberg said.

The suit was brought by schools in Calhoun and Aransas Counties, located on the coast, the city of Abernathy, which is in the Panhandle, and Dallas-area schools in Frisco, Lewisville and Richardson. Another 54 school districts are helping to finance the lawsuit, Trachtenberg said.

Texas limits school districts from raising property taxes above $1.04 for every dollar of property valuation. To increase property taxes above that level -- to as high as $1.17 per dollar, the school districts must hold an election.

But many of the extra dollars raised from property tax hikes would be redistributed by the state to poor schools.

"It is really not politically viable to hold an election," Trachtenberg said.

Yet Texas courts in the past have ruled that schools must have a meaningful ability to raise money through the property tax, he said. And the Texas constitution bars a statewide property tax, which the schools argue is in effect being imposed by the property tax restrictions.

The school funding problem has become particularly acute because the state cut $5.4 billion of funding in the current two-year budget. "This has resulted in thousands of layoffs of teachers and support staff across the state," the lawyer said.

Yet about 80,000 new pupils enroll a year, and the legislature has stiffened educational requirements. These factors makes it much harder for schools to meet the constitutional requirement of providing an adequate education. "That's the nature of the adequacy claim," Trachtenberg said.

The suit, filed in the county seat of Austin, the Texas capital, is Case No. D-1-GV-11-001917.

(Reporting by Joan Gralla)