DALLAS — School districts across Texas are lining up to join one of three filed or anticipated lawsuits that contend the state’s system for funding public education is unconstitutional.
Several districts are expected to file their own, separate suits.
Lawyers for the Texas Taxpayer and Student Fairness Coalition were the first to get to court. The group’s Oct. 10 filing in a Travis County state district court called the current funding system “inadequate, unfair and lacking in local control.”
The Fairness Coalition was organized and is operated by the Equity Center, an Austin-based nonprofit school advocacy group.
Local trustees overseeing 285 of Texas’ 1,024 independent school districts have agreed to join the lawsuit. Wayne Pierce, executive director of the Equity Center, said the goal is to have at least 300 districts as plaintiffs.
Plaintiffs include the San Antonio Independent School District, the Corpus Christi Independent School District and the Nacogdoches Independent School District.
“It’s important to not only represent as many districts as we can, but to speak for a group that’s as diverse as the state of Texas,” he said. “The more students and taxpayers we can represent, the stronger our voice will be on their behalf.”
Two groups representing other districts have announced plans to file similar lawsuits seeking to overturn the school financing system in the state.
Trustees of the Houston Independent School District, the largest in Texas, voted unanimously last week to join the Austin Independent School District and others in a school finance lawsuit to be filed by attorney J. David Thompson of Thompson & Horton LLP.
Attorneys for the Texas School Coalition, which represents 120 districts, said in an Oct, 13 memo that they will argue the school finance system does not provide local districts with access to the funding needed to provide constitutionally adequate public education.
In the memo, attorneys Mark Trachtenberg and John Turner of Haynes and Boone LLP said arguments will include a contention that districts actually have little discretion in setting the maintenance and operations portion of the local property tax rate.
That amounts to a statewide property tax, they contend, which is prohibited by the Texas Constitution.
The coalition’s executive board passed a resolution Oct. 1 endorsing their member districts’ decision to hire Haynes and Boone to represent their interests.
The group, which consists mostly of districts with higher assessed valuations, will focus on adequacy of funding and the state property tax contentions, but not that the system is inequitable or inefficient.
“Our intended approach is based on the belief that the best strategy is one that focuses on the state’s overall level of funding for schools,” Trachtenberg and Turner said.
“We believe the focus should be on the state’s severe reductions in funding for public education as a whole, and not on claims and issues that pit some school districts against others,” they said.
Lauren Cook, communications director at the Equity Center, expects the various lawsuits to be combined into a single case by the court.
“No matter how many are filed, it’s going to be the local districts on one side and the state on the other,” she said.