Lawyers, lawmakers look to possible 2014 school finance special session


by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist MICHAEL MOORE

Bio | Email | Follow: @MarkW_KVUE

Posted on February 5, 2013 at 7:13 PM

Updated Tuesday, Feb 5 at 7:22 PM

AUSTIN -- Even in a quiet conference room, it was hard to suppress the enthusiasm.

"You all are awfully subdued," Education Consultant Lynn Moak told attorneys. "We won!"

District Judge John Dietz ruled Monday the state underfunded schools while raising standards, dubbing the state's school finance system "inadequate and inequitable."

Texas Education Agency Commissioner Michael Williams issued a statement after Monday's ruling reiterating that the districts' victory is only temporary.

"Today’s bench ruling is simply one step on this litigation’s path," said Williams. "All sides have known that, regardless of the outcome at the district level, final resolution will not come until this case reaches the Texas Supreme Court. I’m appreciative of the strong case presented by the attorney general’s office on behalf of the state. The Texas Education Agency will continue to carry out its mission of serving the students and educators across our state."

Attorneys representing the largest group of school districts suing the state met Tuesday to debrief media on the lawsuit's next phase.

David Thompson, an attorney representing the Fort Bend ISD coalition, explained any ruling by the Texas Supreme Court will be based on the district judge's findings of fact.

"It is extremely important because again that sets the foundation for all appeals from this point forward," said Thompson.

The ruling presents a dilemma for state budget writers who could be faced with finding a fix.

"At this point today, our plan is to just kind of keep the status quo," said House Appropriations Chair State Rep. Jim Pitts (R-Waxachie).

Along with his counterpart Senate Finance Chair State Sen. Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands), Pitts confirmed one of the considerations could be setting aside roughly $2 billion in case the state loses an appeal.

"We're talking about it and I'm visiting with the attorney general today to see what the prudent thing is to do," said Pitts. "During the course of the next few weeks we'll be making that decision."

"I don't think that with the lawsuit pending that we're going to be able to address increasing funding to public education," Williams told KVUE Tuesday. "The school districts that chose to take this battle to the courts, they really kind of tied our hands and I'm sorry that they did that. I think that the state and local school districts should be partners in this process and you don't sue your partner."

One of the interim measures Williams said he's considering is an initiative proposed last session to move more school districts off of "hold harmless" funding and onto full formula funding.

"That doesn't mean there won't be any new money for education, but the formulas need to be fixed before we start pouring any money into them," said Williams.

Both Williams and Pitts suggest a special session to address school funding in the spring of 2014 is looking more likely.

"I think it will be without a doubt," said Williams.

The timing would be dependent upon a ruling by the Texas Supreme Court, which attorneys for the Fort Bend ISD coalition say would likely come 12-14 months from now, assuming Dietz's ruling is promptly appealed.

Thompson said a special session held before the next legislative session would be "ideal."

Attorneys shrugged off the idea $2 billion would be enough for the state to cover its obligations if the high court rules in the districts' favor, and dismissed talk the court's ruling would necessarily result in Texans paying more taxes.

"We do have money available both in unobligated general revenue and certainly in the 'rainy day fund' to begin to address some of the issues without a new tax," Thompson said.

Both sides are awaiting the formal ruling to be released by Dietz's office, an "ominubus" ruling with providing further explanation of the decision.

The full ruling is expected to be released four to six weeks from Monday's oral announcement.