Districts wanted more from court; While some thrilled, many fear funding won’t be boosted

By Holly K. Hacker and Joshua Benton
Staff Writers

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The mixed ruling from the Texas Supreme Court on Tuesday prompted equally mixed reactions from Dallas-area school districts.

As to how the Texas Supreme Court’s ruling will affect classrooms, stay tuned. The court ruled that part of the state’s $30 billion-a-year school finance system is unconstitutional, but it left solutions up to the Legislature.

“We’re thrilled by the ruling,” said Cathy Bryce, superintendent of the Highland Park Independent School District, a plaintiff in the case.

The court gave school districts a partial victory by ruling that local property taxes – the primary way of paying for public schools – have evolved into an unconstitutional state tax.

“It really sends a clear signal that we’ll have to look to other things than a property tax,” Dr. Bryce said.

But the court’s finding that schools have enough money to operate effectively disappointed some districts.

“We’re just having to cut, and it just gets tougher. The low-hanging fruit is gone,” said Tony Harkleroad, assistant superintendent of finance for the Richardson Independent School District.

The Legislature has to overhaul the property tax system by June 1, giving districts time to plan budgets for the next school year.

The high court did not agree with a lower court that the state must spend more money to give students an adequate education – disappointing districts that had pushed hard for billions more in state funding.

Still, the Supreme Court warned that public education in Texas “has reached the point where continued improvement will not be possible absent significant change,” be it more dollars, greater efficiency or better teaching.

The ruling did not change the state’s so-called Robin Hood system, through which property-wealthy districts send dollars to poor ones. Highland Park, for example, with its high property values, sends more than 70 percent of its property tax dollars to poor districts.

Growing excitement

The prospect of having money come from other sources excited some school officials.

“We can no longer put so much burden on the property taxpayers,” Dr. Bryce said.

State law allows school districts to charge a maximum property tax rate of $1.50 per $100 valuation. So many districts have reached that cap that it amounts to a statewide property tax, the Supreme Court ruled. And in Texas, that’s unconstitutional.

Debbie Cabrera, executive director of finance for Irving schools, said she hoped the Legislature would consider bolder changes to school finance than it has weighed in recent sessions. Some of the bolder proposals would have lowered property taxes but not substantially increased funding for schools or given districts more flexibility to set their own tax rates.

“Maybe this will finally clue them in that they can’t do that,” she said. “They just have to throw it all out and start over again.”

But some superintendents were less sure, primarily because the court resisted districts’ pleas to pump more state money into schools to ensure an “adequate” education. They said the ruling doesn’t guarantee more money will reach students, only that it will come from different sources.

“It’s a mixed bag,” said Mac Bernd, Arlington’s superintendent. “Not addressing adequacy is discouraging to us because we’re not a rich district. Public education in this state really needs to address the needs of every student, no matter where he or she happens to live.”

As it stands, Dr. Bernd said, “the Legislature could simply replace one tax with another and not address the issue of adequacy at all.”

Decision time

Kenneth English, Duncanville’s superintendent, said Texans will have to decide what they want from their public schools.

“Do we want to be barely adequate?” Dr. English said. “If we want a first-class workforce, a well-educated citizenry, we probably need to set the standard a little bit higher, which would require more resources.”

In Richardson, district officials have had to close two schools, raise class sizes and offer fewer high school electives because of rising costs and challenges, Mr. Harkleroad said. And Tuesday’s ruling just sends a fundamental question back to Austin.

“What it boils down to is, how do you pay for it?” he said. Everybody wants good schools, he said, “but nobody wants to pay for it.”

Linda Henrie, Mesquite’s superintendent, said she was also disappointed the court didn’t order more money into the system. “We would like to have reading specialists on every campus, but we’re not able to do that,” she said. “Our class sizes are larger than the state average. We simply cannot have as many people as we would like.”

But for now, her eyes – along with those of educators around the state – turn to the Capitol in Austin.

“So much is going to depend on what the Legislature does,” Dr. Henrie said.

Until then, what happens is anybody’s guess, said Thomas Graca, assistant professor of education policy at the University of Texas at Arlington.

“All school districts can do is hold their breath,” Dr. Graca said. “Basically the Supreme Court has told the Legislature and the state they’ve got to do something to fix the funding system prior to the next school year.”