Districts Avoid School Finance Lawsuits, Cite Finances

More than half of the school districts in Texas, representing roughly 3.5 million students — or 75 percent of the overall total — have signed on to sue the state over the way it funds public schools.

But fewer than 500 districts haven’t. Many of those districts, already facing budget cuts, say they just don’t have the resources.

As of Monday, 451 out of the 1,024 Texas school districts haven’t joined one of the five lawsuits, according to Ray Freeman, deputy executive director of the Equity Center, a public education advocacy organization that is also bringing one of the lawsuits.

Four of the lawsuits challenge the state on whether it has given enough money to schools. A fifth lawsuit has also been filed, not by school districts but by a group of parents who support charter schools. It questions how the money that the state gives to schools is spent.

Last week, a judge indicated that a trial would probably begin in early October and allowed the first four lawsuits filed by school districts to be consolidated into one, according to the Austin-American Statesman.

Catherine Clark, an associate executive director at the Texas Association of School Boards, which provides legal services to school boards, sees several reasons why some districts won’t be signing on to a lawsuit.

First, it’s a budgetary consideration, Clark said. With schools facing budget cuts, joining a lawsuit isn’t something they have the resources to do. She said that often in group lawsuits, people decline to be involved because others are carrying the bill for them. Community members may have also come forward and told school boards that they do not want to be involved in the litigation.

Some districts also just may not want to take a chance on one of the suits.

“In any state litigation there is a notion that some people have that the cure is worse than the condition,” Clark said. “They worry that if this gets into the courts and a decision is made for change, the outcome may not even be as good as it is right now. That level of uncertainty may make them hesitate to get involved.”

Victoria Independent School District didn’t join a lawsuit when the idea was brought to its school board because the South Texas district had different priorities after budget cuts were made.

“It’s certainly not that we don’t think there’s a problem with school finance. There definitely is,” said school board president Tami Keeling. “We made a commitment to our primary investment being instructional staff. We’re not spending anything anywhere that’s not related to that or other student expenses.”

Tracy Young, a spokeswoman for the Texas Charter Schools Association, says she doesn’t know of any charter schools that have joined any of the lawsuits – even the fifth that wants the state to lift the cap on the number of charter schools it allows.

For charter schools, too, limited resources have prevented joining lawsuits.

“Expense is a major issue,” said Britni Bradford, a spokeswoman for Uplift Education, a group of public charter schools in the Dallas area.

Although Keeling of Victoria ISD said the way school finance is currently handled is detrimental to districts like hers, the district wouldn’t be taking the risk of getting involved with the litigation.

“Eventually, this is going to get sorted out one way or another,” Keeling said.

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