Two Crossroads school districts sue state; Calhoun County selected as first plaintiff

Dec. 9, 2011 at 6:09 a.m.
Updated Dec. 10, 2011 at 6:10 a.m.

The Calhoun County school district is listed as the primary plaintiff in a lawsuit that alleges the state's school finance system violates the Texas constitution.

The Refugio school district also joined about 120 property-wealthy Texas school districts that sued the state Friday.

"We believe strongly - our school board, our community and I know I do - ... we need to tell our story, and that's the way we can do it," Calhoun County Superintendent Billy Wiggins said. "If we don't take a stand and tell our story, then we don't have anything to complain about because that's how our system works."

Wiggins said the CCISD school board voted to pay less than $6,000 for two years to join the Texas School Coalition, which is made up of school districts that give property tax money back to the state under the so-called Robin Hood school funding plan. The tax money from districts with higher property wealth are then distributed to districts with less property wealth.

Wiggins said CCISD submitted information to the coalition, which then picked six plaintiffs to represent the rest of the districts in the suit.

"They said, 'We think your story is worth telling,'" Wiggins said.

CCISD cut 50 jobs this year and closed Point Comfort Elementary school amidst emotional objections from the community.

Sixty school districts have joined the suit, which proclaims "the Texas school finance system has reached a crisis stage again."

The schools contend that because so many districts are taxing at the maximum allowable rate, the school property tax has effectively become a statewide property tax, which is unconstitutional in Texas.

The state is "co-opting the school districts' taxing authority, so it's become a de facto state property tax," said Mark Trachtenberg, one of the attorneys representing the school districts.

Like about 20 percent of the about 1,030 Texas school districts, Wiggins said CCISD is taxing its citizens the maximum rate of $1.17 per $100 of property value.

The only way to gather more taxes would be to put a tax increase on the ballots for voter approval. But any extra revenue would still be subject to the Robin Hood recapture, which means it would go back to the state instead of being spent locally.

Though Calhoun County could be called property-wealthy, Wiggins said as a coastal district, they have insurance and other costs that are "astronomical."

"We're just as poor as everybody around, so what we're advocating is to be a part of something that's advocating more funding for all schools," he said.

The schools also argue that the Legislature hasn't been putting enough money into the system to meet the constitutional mandate for an "adequate" education.

"They're failing to provide the resources to provide an adequate education under the state's own standards," attorney John Turner said.

Lawmakers did not pay for about $4 billion in enrollment growth during the most recent legislative session, despite an estimated growth of about 80,000 students a year. The Legislature also cut about $1.4 billion in grant programs that serve at-risk students, such as full-day prekindergarten, after-school tutoring and dropout prevention programs.

The lawsuit claims the massive cuts have resulted in the loss of thousands of teachers and support staff and led many districts to seek waivers allowing for bigger classes at a time when state testing requirements are getting tougher.

Wiggins reiterated that the lawsuit is intended to help all school districts, not just property-rich ones.

Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman at the Texas Education Authority, said the agency will discuss the lawsuit with Attorney General Greg Abbott, whose office represents the state in litigation.

"Ultimately, school funding is an issue that will be resolved by the courts and the Legislature," she said. The TEA and Education Commissioner Robert Scott are named as defendants in the lawsuit.

Another coalition of schools filed a similar lawsuit in October, contending that the system is unfair, inefficient and unconstitutional.

That one accuses lawmakers of turning a blind eye on the state's troubled school financing system for years and exacerbating the flaws by slashing public school spending.

The school funding system in Texas has been a grievance since the battle of the Alamo, when one of the Texans' complaints was Mexico's failure to establish a public education system. Since then, the Legislature has only undertaken major reform efforts when ordered to do so by the courts.

Most recently, lawmakers implemented a new tax structure, reducing reliance on property taxes and creating a new business tax. Lawmakers adopted the overhaul measure during a 2006 special legislative session, under court threat of closing public schools. At the time, the Texas Supreme Court warned that the plan would only be a temporary fix.

Comptroller Susan Combs and the State Board of Education are also named as defendants in the lawsuit.



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