Schools Consider Legal Action Over Budget Cuts

With school districts across the state passing belt-tightening budgets due to cuts expected at the Legislature, some are gearing up for legal challenges.

Scott McCown, executive director of the liberal Center for Public Policy Priorities, said there are three potential challenge areas to the cuts: equity, adequacy and a statewide property tax.

Concerning a statewide property tax, current school finance laws give each district 17 pennies of property tax to levy or not, based on the district’s needs and voter approval. But most districts have already spent that money, and if everyone is paying the same property tax rate, that raises an issue.

Audio: Ben Philpott's story for KUT News

“It’s no longer supplemental,” McCown said. “It’s no longer discretionary, and you have created a de facto state property tax.”

 

This argument brought changes to the school finance system in 2006.

It’s been an easier argument for school districts over the years that they need the same amount of money per student — equity — as it is easy to demonstrate that one district has greater resources than another. A counterargument can be made that money and cuts will be spread out more evenly if lawmakers cut between $4 billion and $8 billion from public schools and create a new funding system to deliver what’s left.

“Although it would be devastating to districts, as far as an equity issue in the courts," said Lauren Cook, with the Equity Center, a school finance think tank, "there wouldn’t really be much to argue."

Concerning adequacy, she said cutting as much as $8 billion from public schools would allow districts to argue that that no one is receiving adequate funding.

“Legally, it’s still a hard argument to make because the courts in the past have refrained from trying to define what is an adequate education,” she said.

Cook said school districts working with the Equity Center have already begun talking about what, if any, legal action they can take. Depending on what the final school finance bill looks in June, those conversations may continue.

 

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