Dallas-Area School Districts Seek to Balance Funding Inequalities (TX)
April 26, 2010
Rockwall students are worth more than those in Mesquite. And children in Prosper are worth the most of all, at least when it comes to state education funding.
The state pays $7,618 to educate each Prosper student and $4,988 for students in Mesquite. Rockwall, next door to Mesquite, falls in between with $6,097 per child.
School administrators and some lawmakers say the system that determines the amount school districts get for each student is not fair, but few see the Legislature making major changes when it meets in January.
Increasingly desperate school administrators sa y the money must be found.
"It’s like we’re standing on the north face of the Grand Canyon wondering how far down we are going to fall," said Garland Superintendent Curtis Culwell. He is one of the school representatives on a select committee studying ways to equalize funding.
When the Legislature reformed education funding in 2007, it set out the per-student target revenue, as it is called. The basic allotment was based on the amount that school districts raised from local tax revenue and the state paid in the 2005-06 school year. It differs for each district, depending on what the local tax rate, the local property wealth and a few other factors were then.
"It crystallized the differences of funding that were in place," said Lisa Dawn-Fisher, deputy associate commissioner of finance for the Texas Education Agency. "The differences were always there. Target revenue made the disparities more visible."
The popular belief was that the new system would provide more equal funding, but that was "mythical. It doesn’t have anything to do with equity," Dawn-Fisher said.
The target revenue for each district has changed little since it was set, leaving school districts to deal with changes driven by the economy since 2007.
Schools have limped along to keep from cutting teacher jobs or other money going to the classroom. They’ve delayed buying new buses and started buying technology from bond funds, Culwell said. And they’ve covered budget deficits from fund reserves, basically the district’s savings account.
The schools will muddle thro ugh next year, Culwell and other superintendents said. Funding for next year was set during the last legislative session, and it is buoyed by federal stimulus and stabilization funds.
But the 2011-12 school year could be catastrophic, administrators say. The federal money will be gone and will have to be replaced by the state, which already faces an estimated $15 billion deficit.
Districts can’t raise taxes without voter approval. And an increased tax rate would only put a Band-Aid on budgets for a year or two. Reserve funds will be running low and some districts may be forced to lay off teachers.
Things are looking so bad that a few school districts are talking about filing a lawsuit against the state, charging that the system violates the state constitution because it does not provide adequate or equal funding.
The movement to file a lawsuit is not strong yet, said Wayne Pierce, executive director of the Equity Center, a coalition of poorer school districts.
"The way we look at it is that schools, from time to time when the state just goes year upon year ignoring the school funding, may have to resort to the court," Pierce said.
Facing school cuts
As the budgets have gotten tighter, the disparities have weighed more and more on school administrators’ minds.
"I would definitely like there to be more equity," Mesquite Superintendent Linda Henrie said. "This was to be a temporary situation. There was to be a complete overhaul."
Because Mesquite generated little help from the state in 2005-06, it has the lowest tar get revenue in the area, according to the TEA. Henrie looks at Sunnyvale with $6,200 per student and thinks what she could do with an extra $1,200 per student.
She said the money would likely be used to lower the number of students in high school classes and hire subject specialists to work with teachers.
Without the money, the district will have to look for other places to cut. Laying off teachers would be the last resort, Henrie said.
Would she consider recommending Mesquite join a lawsuit against the state?
"Yes," she said. "I hope it won’t come to that, but I would if it would be to the benefit of our students."