Statewide school finance lawsuit set to resume in 2014

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On the heels of declaring the state’s school finance system unconstitutional Feb. 4, state District Judge John Dietz decided to reopen the school finance lawsuit that Fort Bend ISD joined in 2011. The case is currently on appeal at the Texas Supreme Court, and the trial is set to resume Jan. 21, 2014.

“We have more children enrolled in public education in the state of Texas than any other state save California,” FBISD board president Jim Rice said. “During the 83rd Legislative Session, the state did increase funding for public education, and all of our districts benefited from this and we are grateful. However, the [83rd] Legislature was not able to restore all of the cuts made.”

During the 82nd Legislative Session in 2011, about $5.4 billion in state funding—about $500 per student statewide—was cut from public education, resulting in a $28 million shortfall in FBISD’s budget for the 2010–11 school year.

“In 2010, the district realized it was going to have a budget shortfall and took pains to prepare for that,” Rice said.

As a result of the cuts, FBISD lost about 500 employees—about 5 percent of the district’s total employment—including 10 special education teachers.

“[Our teachers] are our support structure,” Rice said. “When budgets get cut, you have to make very difficult decisions.”

About 85 percent of the FBISD annual budget is allocated for employee costs.

During the 83rd Legislative Session, legislators were able to restore about $3.4 billion from the state’s rainy day fund—which has grown because of the coinciding growth in the oil and gas industry, said David Thompson of the Thompson and Horton law firm and representative of FBISD’s plaintiff group for the suit.

“That is more money than we have ever put into public education at any time in one session in history,” he said. “The problem is that it followed a session in which we cut more than we ever have in history. So, we are not quite back to where we were before the cuts.”

FBISD was not the only school district in Texas to feel the pinch of budget cuts.

In response to the cuts, about 600 of the state’s more than 1,000 school districts joined four plaintiff groups and filed suit against the state government. FBISD was one of the first districts to file suit, joined by 83 other districts in its plaintiff group in 2011. FBISD and its partner districts in the suit represent more than 1.8 million students, Thompson said.

Funding sources for public schools is split between federal and state funding and a portion of local property tax revenues. School district tax rates can only be changed by holding a tax referendum, which are set by the state.

For the 2012–13 school year, FBISD received about $258.5 million, or 55 percent, of its funding from local taxes; about $204.3 million, or 43.5 percent, in state funding; and about $6.9 million, or 1.5 percent, in federal funding. Revenues from federal funding are distributed nationally and earmarked for projects and other costs by the federal government.

Texas has added an average of 80,000 students each year since 2005. About 60 percent of the enrolled students in the state and more than 38 percent of FBISD students are classified as economically disadvantaged on the free and reduced lunch and breakfast programs.

In 2011, state legislators failed to provide funding to cover costs associated with increasing enrollment and cut programs aimed at assisting at-risk children, according to Thompson and Horton.

FBISD is planning to hold an educational roundtable in spring to discuss the district’s financial needs and priorities.

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