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Final arguments heard in landmark school finance retrial

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Posted: Wednesday, February 12, 2014 1:00 am

AUSTIN—Thursday marked the final day of evidence for the landmark school finance retrial at the Travis County Courthouse. Before trial began, Judge John Dietz announced he would hear final arguments on Friday.

He said he felt the eight days of retrial were a repetition of the original trial which lasted from October 2012 to February 2013 with school districts arguing the state does not provide them financial means to provide their students a general diffusion of knowledge as lawfully required. The state has argued the opposite.

In February 2013, Dietz ruled the state did not provide adequate and equitable funding to school districts, making the finance system fundamentally unconstitutional. The case came back to court after about $3.4 billion of the $5.4 billion school districts lost in 2011 were restored.

The morning session of the court included cross-examination of Dr. Lisa Dawn-Fisher by the Texas Taxpayer and Student Fairness Coalition plaintiff group.

Hutto and Taylor ISDs, joined the Coalition in the original suit and have continued involved in the current case.

Dawn-Fisher was asked to compare funding levels between Ch. 41 (property wealth) and Ch. 42 (low-to-medium property wealthy) school districts, specifically looking at maintenance and operations and interest and sinking tax rates levied by the two classes of districts.

Though she repeatedly insisted that two Travis County school districts—Eanes and Pflugerville—were vastly different, she agreed that the tax rate is the same but the Weighted Average Daily Attendance is not.

WADA directly correlates to how much funding school districts receive.

The comparison was made because the districts are geographically similar.

She confirmed there is a doubling in gap from 2006 to the present when it comes to these two types of districts.

The state’s wealthiest districts educate an average of 141,583 students, tax at $1.006 and get $5,674 per WADA. By contrast, the bottom-funded districts, educate at average of 802,426 students, tax at $1.096 and get $5,690 per WADA.

This translates to the lower-funded districts taxing 9-cents higher using the weighted average approach and receiving $1,052 less in WADA.

In a classroom average size of 22 students, this translates to a classroom having on average $30,000 less than its wealthier counterpart.

However, there is much more to the comparison, the witness reiterated.

“Differences are allowed because of different characteristics of school districts. Weights work for very small districts to help deal with small economies of scale,” Dawn-Fisher said.

She did not agree that disparities amongst Texas school districts exist because of the state’s continued reliance on school property taxes. Instead, she said, school property taxes is just one of the factors.

“It’s not like WADA is the same for every school district. That relationship depends on a district and its characteristics and its students’ characteristics,” she said.

The second witness to take the stand Thursday was Shirley Beaulieu, Chief Financial Officer at the Texas Education Agency. She was asked to testify about the changes in appropriations made to TEA’s budget over the past three biennia.

She briefly provided comparisons for state formula funding and local property tax collections. She said that in terms of total state and local formula funding, the level of funding increased 7.67-percent between the 12-13 and the 14-15 biennia.

Monica Martinez, who has worked at TEA for nine-to-10 years and oversees curriculum, was the final witness on Thursday.

She testified on the changes to graduation requirements caused by House Bill 5 but could not offer Dietz an opinion on whether she believes standards have risen, declined or stayed the same though she did agree standards have changed over the past 10 years.

Martinez said HB5 modified graduation requirements but not curriculum.

The requirements have shifted from offering students three graduation diploma programs—minimum, recommended and distinguished, to a foundation program with or without endorsements (pathways).

The endorsements are STEM, business/ industry, arts/humanities, public services and multi-disciplinary studies.

School districts are required to offer at least one endorsement— multi-disciplinary studies.

Martinez stressed HB5 did not change Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills standards.

The Edgewood plaintiffs pointed out that Martinez has no experience managing school districts or implementing programs at the local level and is therefore not aware of cost implications for school districts.

Closing arguments took place Friday afternoon with each party receiving 15 minutes to deliver arguments.

Dietz did not make a ruling on Friday citing work still needed to be done by attorneys which will take until spring to complete.

Court is in recess until further notice. Dietz said he will give a couple of days of notice before releasing his ruling.

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