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David Thompson

Re-interview with David Thompson

Last year, I published an interview with attorney David Thompson, who has worked with HISD for a long time on legislative and financial matters, including on the endless litigation over school finance, to discuss the November referendum on recapture. He clarified a lot of items, such as the wording of the referendum, the things that could be done to affect how much HISD would be required to pay, and what a No vote would mean, and in the end he endorsed a vote against the referendum in the hope of spurring action. Since then, as we know, the Texas Education Agency has indeed taken action that reduces HISD’s recapture payments, and the HISD Board of Trustees has put the item up for a vote again on May 6, with early voting from April 24 through May 2. This seemed like an excellent opportunity to talk to Thompson again about what has changed and why a Yes vote this time around makes sense. Here’s our conversation:

As noted, early voting begins April 24 and runs through May 2. Here are your early voting locations and hours, not just for HISD but also for (deep breath) City of Humble, City of Pasadena, Humble Independent School District, Northgate Crossing Municipal Utility District 2, Northwest Harris County Municipal Utility District 28, Oakmont Public Utility District, and Harris County Water Control & Improvement District 91.

Where we begin with school finance

A nice overview from the Trib on school finance, where the problems are many and the budget situation is non-optimal.

The current system is held together by a number of short-term fixes that have not been updated or reformed in decades. The Texas Supreme Court upheld the funding system as constitutional in May, and at the same time put the onus on state lawmakers to reform it — but few believe a major overhaul will come without a court order.

Even if legislators decided to tackle an overhaul of the whole system, experts say there is not enough money in state coffers to increase state spending, lower local spending and relieve Texans upset about rising property taxes. For now, some lawmakers are backing a simple plan to increase money to all school districts through the general appropriations bill, instead of taking apart the complex school finance system. Others have filed bills to tweak individual weights in the system, which provide additional money for disadvantaged student populations.


Legislators will also have to decide this year whether to re-up a program that provides extra funding for fewer than 200 districts that would otherwise have lost money in previous school finance rewrites. When the Legislature reduced property taxes by a third in 2006, it guaranteed school districts at least the same state funding they received for the 2005-06 school year by creating the Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction initiative.

That aid expires Sept. 1, but the districts still receiving the money are clamoring for an extension. “At some point, it does need to go away for the sake of more equity. But it can’t fall off a cliff at this point in time,” said Guy Sconzo, executive director of the Fast Growth School Coalition, which represents the fastest-growing districts in the state. “It does the entire system no good if any part of the system effectively goes bankrupt.”

So far, five legislators have filed bills to extend the funding program. State Rep. Ken King, R-Canadian, filed House Bill 811, which would extend funding through 2020-21. Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, proposed an extension through 2022-23. Both lawmakers were members of their chambers’ public education committees last session.

King, who is on the short list to chair the House Public Education Committee this session, said some districts are still getting a large chunk of their overall funding through this program and that they cannot be cut off immediately. “I’m going to put a mechanism in place for school districts to roll off of the aid in 2021 and hopefully replace the dollars with another school funding system,” he said.

Other school finance advocates oppose the extension, calling it a “Band-Aid” that exacerbates the inequity among districts.

“It maintains an already inefficient portion of the system,” said Ray Freeman, deputy executive director of the Equity Center, which represents property-poor districts. Instead, he said, legislators should reform the base formulas so districts have access to a stable source of funds.

The Houston Independent School District will be a major focus this session because its voters in November rejected sending $165 million in local property taxes to poorer school districts. In the Texas finance system, districts with a wealthier tax base spend local money to help educate students in districts with less property tax money, as part of the “Robin Hood” or “recapture” system.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath has warned that the state will probably move commercial properties from Houston ISD tax rolls to those of a nearby district. Houston legislators will be under pressure to find a way to ease the burden, as those property owners could face higher tax rates in their newly assigned districts.

David Thompson, an attorney representing Houston ISD, said a legislative win for Houston on school finance could also mean a win for other districts. “There are particular issues that would address some of the concerns in Houston and at the same time be helpful for schools across the state,” he said.

The state should update its formulas for determining which districts get transportation funding, and the state should also provide full-day pre-K funding for all districts, Thompson said.

“Everybody starts by saying, ‘There’s no money.’ There is,” he said. The state should allow the local dollars people are already paying to stay in education, instead of “siphoning local property taxes” for non-education purposes, he said.

But some legislators are saying Houston ISD voters dug themselves deeper into a school funding hole and should live with the repercussions. “I don’t think the Legislature has a lot of appetite to let Harris County out of recapture when everybody else is paying it,” King said.


School finance experts agree that increasing the basic allotment, the base funding each district receives per student, is likely to be the most popular way of changing the system. The House Public Education Committee recommended this approach in its interim report.

“The amount we set for the basic allotment drives the entire school finance system and, given our current system, increasing that amount would be a prudent move to help all districts,” said State Rep. Trent Ashby, R-Lufkin. “It’s important to note, this method can also be achieved through the General Appropriations Act alone, so it may also be the most realistic thing the Legislature can do this session without having to pass a stand-alone bill.”

It’s likely to be a favored proposal in the House, Ashby said. But like many other plans, it requires more dollars to public education, a difficult challenge this session, given that lawmakers have less money to spend than they did when they last met in 2015.

There’s also vouchers, the A-F grading system for accountability ratings, continued discontent with STAAR, curriculum and graduation requirements, etc etc etc. It’s important to remember that the local property tax boom that helped lead HISD and other districts into recapture is also a huge boon for the state budget, and not something legislators will give up easily. I think the best case scenario is some more money from general revenue, adjustments to the funding formula for transportation and pre-K as David Thompson noted, and a temporary extension of the Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction initiative with a plan to fix it next session. HISD will still owe recapture money even if all that is done, but I for one would feel a lot less aggrieved by recapture if these things happened, and would support a recapture re-vote to take place before detachment could begin. We’ll see how it goes.

Interview with David Thompson

You’re probably aware of the HISD referendum on the ballot this fall, which authorizes the Board of Trustees to pay $162 million to the state of Texas to comply with recapture, a/k/a Robin Hood laws. There’s a lot of opposition to this referendum, from several HISD Board members, the Chron editorial board, the Houston Federation of Teachers, and more. You’re also probably aware that voting the referendum down does not get HISD off the hook for recapture, it just means that instead of sending the Texas Education Agency a check, they will “detach” properties from HISD to fulfill the amount. Those who oppose the referendum hope to force the Legislature to take action to address recapture, while others say this is too big a risk to take? If you’re like me, you’re probably a little confused by all of this. With all that in mind, I reached out to David Thompson, who serves as general counsel for the HISD Board and who has represented HISD in multiple school finance lawsuits, to ask him all of my questions about recapture and the referendum. He helped me to understand it a lot better, and I hope the same will be true for you:

Interviews and Q&As from the primaries are on my 2016 Election page. I will eventually get around to updating it to include links to fall interviews.

Endorsement watch: In case you didn’t hear us the first time

The Chron reiterates its opposition to the HISD recapture referendum.


Statewide property taxes are unconstitutional in Texas, but don’t tell that to the legislators in Austin.

For decades, the Legislature has been shifting its obligation to fund public education to local communities. Now, this November, Houston is facing a new sneaky invoice from the state. There’s a misleading budget measure on the ballot asking whether Houston Independent School District should submit itself to state recapture and send $162  million in local property tax dollars to Austin. As we’ve previously stated, the correct answer is “NO,” or “AGAINST.”

If the measure passes, HISD, a district with 3 out of 4 of its students considered economically disadvantaged, will have to significantly cut its budget and send $162 million in local tax revenues earmarked for public schools this year to Austin. The tab over four years is estimated to be $1 billion.

If the measure fails, HISD still may not be spared the budget cuts, as the Texas Education Agency will have the power to remove the highest-value commercial properties from the tax pool that pays into HISD and permanently assign the tax revenue to a poorer school system.

A vote against the measure offers education advocates one advantage: time. It will give the Legislature an opportunity to address the larger problem of why these draconian budget cuts are being foisted on a district that serves poor students.

The Chron ran basically the same editorial less than three weeks ago. I have no idea why they felt the need to restate their view, but there you have it. I myself am still grappling with this question, and as I have done in the past when trying to figure out which way to go in a particular election, I did some interviews. Today you will see an interview with David Thompson, the general counsel for the HISD Board of Trustees, who explains what the recapture issue is about and provides some context for why a No vote is called for. On Wednesday I’ll be running an interview with TSU poli sci professor and former HCC Trustee Jay Aiyer, who explains why a Yes vote is the most prudent course of action. I hope these two posts will help you figure out which way you should vote.

School finance ruling expected soon

Hold onto your hats.


For decades, the state’s 1,000-plus school districts vied against one another for a bigger piece of the financial pie. Now two-thirds of state districts have joined forces to say the system is unfair because it doesn’t provide adequate funding for all.

The state’s high court is expected to rule any day now on a lawsuit filed by those districts, which could force Texas lawmakers into a special session next summer. The districts hope the high court’s ruling will prompt lawmakers to overhaul the system as early as June 2016.

“School funding formulas in Texas are at least 30 years old,” said J. David Thompson, Houston-based attorney for the moderate-wealth districts, such as Dallas and Fort Worth. “Some of our formulas were determined when Ronald Reagan was president and before the fall of the Berlin Wall.”


Many say that the current case in front of the high court is the most far-reaching school finance lawsuit in state history because it represents the broadest coalition of state districts.

“Now, there are other problems with the system that are affecting all of us,” said Thompson, who represents moderate-wealth districts, like Fort Worth.

Randall “Buck” Wood is the longtime Austin attorney for property-poor districts that filed the initial set of school finance suits, which began in the 1980s and led to Edgewood IV. Three decades later, Wood said he never thought that he would be on the same side as property-wealthy districts.

“Everybody tried to support everybody else,” said Wood, whose group also represents the Arlington school district. “There wasn’t any backbiting.”

Houston’s Mark R. Trachtenberg, attorney for property-wealthy districts, says it’s no longer an adversarial situation.

“In this case, again, the Legislature cut $5.4 billion out of public education in 2011 and it impacted property-wealthy and property-poor districts,” said Trachtenberg, who represents the Carroll, Grapevine-Colleyville, Northwest, Plano and Highland Park school districts.

“It’s been a long time since Edgewood IV,” he said.

See here and here for the most recent updates. The story is a pretty good primer on How We Got Here that’s worth your time if you want a refresher, but the main news is what I highlighted. I should note that the predictions made in that last link for when we’d get a ruling were “January” and “springtime”, so if we really are in “any day now” mode, it’s going to hit a lot sooner than people expected. (This Trib story about Ken Paxton whining about school finance litigation contains a note that Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht suggested January as a likely time frame, though “any say now” was still possible.) If the Supremes throw the finance system out and basically force the Lege to come up with some number of billions of dollars to make things whole, that could have a significant effect on the upcoming Republican legislative primaries. I mean, that’s one reason why everyone figured the ruling would be later rather than sooner, to take the primaries out of the equation. We’ll know soon enough.

House will address school finance


Jimmie Don Aycock

With a plan that would add $3 billion to the state’s public education budget, the Texas House has decided to take on school finance reform this legislative session.

As he announced a deal Wednesday that would put $800 million on top of the $2.2 billion the chamber had already allocated to public schools, Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, called the decision a “significant change in direction.”

The topic of school finance was largely expected to go unaddressed this legislative session while a massive lawsuit involving more than two-thirds of the state’s school districts awaits a ruling from the Texas Supreme Court.

After months of private discussions and meetings, Aycock said House leaders no longer wanted to wait for a long-needed overhaul of the system. The proposal will be filed as House Bill 1759.

“We had to ask the fundamental question: Do we want to do what’s right for the state of Texas and the children of Texas, or do we want to sit around and try to play lawyer and outguess the courts?” Aycock told reporters at a Capitol news conference.

The Observer fills in some details.

Aycock said his priority is to correct illogical and outdated features in Texas’ school finance formulas, like adjustments for higher salaries in expensive urban districts or the extra cost of educating students with limited English proficiency, which haven’t been updated in more than 25 years. Tinkering with any of those would upset the delicate equilibrium of a system that, despite its flaws, has been in place since 2006.

“The fact is that when you change these complicated formulas, some people win, some people win more than others, some people lose,” Aycock said. “In order to mitigate that pain politically, you can only do this sort of modification when there’s more money going into the system.”

Some, but not all, members of the crowd around Aycock this morning have been meeting since last fall in an informal working group on school finance reform. The group includes Republicans and Democrats from both urban and rural districts.

In an interview, Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) said Aycock’s plan wouldn’t fix what’s wrong with Texas’ school finance system, but to Democrats who’ve been railing against the state’s chronic underfunding of schools, the extra money was welcome. “It was an offer we couldn’t refuse,” she said.

Still, adding more money this session to Aycock’s plan wouldn’t address the system’s basic flaws, or allow for reforms like pre-kindergarten expansion.

“I think it’s a huge step toward addressing what the court said we need to address,” Howard said, but “I take Chairman Aycock at his word that this is not about trying to make the lawsuit go away.”


David Thompson, an attorney representing one group of school districts suing the state, told the Observer that without a bill to look at yet, it’s impossible to guess how the case might be affected. “I do very much appreciate the House’s willingness to spend some time to address the issue,” Thompson said, adding that the plans Aycock described include “some very positive features.” Thompson said he’s most interested in seeing a proposal that steers more money to districts that educate the state’s neediest children.

Had lawmakers completely punted on school finance reform—or if the House’s plan eventually falls through—a Supreme Court ruling against the state would likely prompt a special session in 2016 dedicated to fixing the system. If nothing else, the new reform effort could serve as a practice run for new members getting to know the arcane system for the first time.

Rep. Aycock had previously filed a different school finance bill, HB654, to simplify the school funding mechanism by grouping the state’s 1,026 regular school districts into at least 30 “school finance districts”. This is something else entirely, and it’s not clear to me what the status of that bill is. Regardless, considering that Rep. Aycock talked about “nibbling around the edges” back in December, it’s quite a step forward. Whether it can survive the tax-cuts-uber-alles mania that is gripping the Senate remains to be seen, but for now this is a hopeful sign.

HISD should not be on the hook for North Forest’s liabilities

Come on!

Fourteen months after the Texas Education Agency ordered Houston ISD to take over the long-troubled North Forest school district, some unexpected disputes over funding have surfaced.

The Houston school board has authorized its attorneys to challenge a Texas Workforce Commission ruling that the district owes more than $3.7 million in unemployment benefits to former employees of the North Forest Independent School District.

In addition, HISD has not yet received enough state money to rebuild North Forest High School and an early childhood center in the area, though district officials say they expect to have sufficient funds in coming years to complete at least the high school project.


Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams ordered the 6,700-student North Forest school district to be closed and annexed to HISD on July 1, 2013, after years of academic struggles and financial problems.

David Thompson, an attorney who represents HISD, said the district should not be responsible for reimbursing the state for unemployment benefits because the North Forest employees never worked for HISD. The Texas Education Agency did not require HISD to hire any North Forest staff.

The unemployment claims totaled $3.7 million as of June 30, according to HISD.

“We think we’re right on the law,” Thompson said, adding that he expects the district to file a lawsuit against the Texas Workforce Commission to appeal having to reimburse the commission for the claims. “Three million dollars pays for a lot of teachers, a lot of supplies.”

The HISD school board voted Thursday to authorize next steps to appeal the commission’s ruling.

HISD officials said they did not know how many North Forest employees filed unemployment claims, but it’s likely hundreds. North Forest ISD employed about 850 people before it closed.

Look, HISD did not volunteer for the duty of annexing North Forest. It was imposed on them by the state. I’m not arguing the merit of that decision – I happen to think it was a good call – but let’s be honest, this is a challenge for HISD. To add to that challenge by imposing North Forest’s unpaid bills on HISD is unconscionable, and that’s before we take into account the Lege’s draconian cuts to public education in 2011 and the state’s extremely flush coffers at this time. Seriously, why are we even arguing about this? The state should make good on these unemployment claims already.

Motion to recuse Judge Dietz denied



State District Judge John Dietz will not be forced off Texas’ ongoing school finance case, a San Antonio judge ruled Monday, handing a victory to school districts suing the state over what they call an unconstitutional lack of adequate funding for public education.

Earlier this month, Attorney General Greg Abbott sought to have Dietz removed, citing evidence that he said showed the jurist improperly coached and encouraged plaintiffs’ attorneys in emails they exchanged earlier this year. After a hearing last week, Fourth Administrative District Judge David Peeples late Monday denied Abbott’s recusal request.

“It appears that the parties and the judge had different understandings on whether there would be back-and-forth discussions between the judge and the prevailing parties on the issues they won,” Peeples said in his ruling.

But he added, “Judge Dietz’s understanding was reasonable, and he acted in good faith.”

“The circumstances shown by the evidence do not justify recusal. The state’s motion to recuse Judge Dietz is respectfully denied,” Peeples concluded.

David Thompson, plaintiffs’ counsel who represents school districts in Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston, including Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, said he was “very pleased” with the ruling.

“I thought it was about as strong a decision as Judge Peeples could have written and we appreciate his very thoughtful consideration of this important issue.”

See here, here, and here for the background, and here for a copy of Judge Peeples’ ruling denying the motion. It’s clear in his decision that he found no reason to question Judge Dietz’ impartiality, though he did suggest that in cases like this it might be better to do a periodic check to make sure everyone still remembers and agrees to what they originally agreed to. But because there was agreement, and because there was plenty of evidence that the state did not object at any point to it, there was no reason to question Judge Dietz’s actions.

More from the DMN:

“This court emphatically rejects any suggestion that Judge Dietz intentionally or knowingly engaged in ex parte discussions without thinking that [all] the parties had agreed to allow this,” Peeples said in his nine-page ruling.

It is common practice in civil suits for a judge to receive input from attorneys on the prevailing side in writing a final judgment in the case.

Dietz is now expected to resume work on his estimated 350-page decision on whether the current Texas school finance system is constitutional.


Dietz has already ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in a preliminary decision in early 2013, but he withheld his final judgment after the Legislature increased state funding for education in its 2013 session.

The motion by Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office to remove Dietz was seen by many as a last-ditch effort to head off a decision against the state.

Judge Peeples’ ruling can be appealed, but as I understand it only as part of the main appeal to the Supreme Court after final judgment is entered, so the delaying tactics available to Greg Abbott at this point are pretty limited. I look forward to seeing Judge Dietz’s final ruling and for the appeal to get underway so we can get moving on the inevitable solution. PDiddie, the AusChron, and Burka have more.

State wants judge removed from school finance case

Keep an eye on this.

Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office on Monday sought to remove the judge presiding over the public school finance case, contending that his impartiality is in question due to email exchanges with lawyers that filed the lawsuit.

A lawyer for one group of the school districts that sued over the funding system, David Thompson, said state District Judge John Dietz has been impartial and that state lawyers have had the same opportunity to communicate with the judge. Abbott’s office said the state wasn’t notified of the communications with plaintiffs or given a chance to respond.


The attorney general’s motion cited a series of e-mails between the judge or his staff and lawyers for those who sued regarding the merits of the litigation, particularly the judgment, findings of fact and conclusions of law.

The exchange occurred between March 19 and mid-May, said the motion, contending that “some of the emails’ content suggest that the judge is coaching the plaintiffs’ counsel in order to improve their case.”

That raises a question about his impartiality, the motion said.


The motion asks that Dietz recuse from the case or that the matter be referred to the regional presiding judge for consideration.

Thompson said plaintiffs will be filing a response soon.

“We don’t think there is a solid basis for it,” Thompson said of the state’s motion. “Certainly nothing has been done that the state was in the dark about.”

The DMN fills in a few blanks.

On May 14, Dietz invited all the attorneys from both sides to meet privately in his chambers to discuss his final ruling, which is expected to be issued later this summer. The session, which was closed to the public, included lawyers from Abbott’s office who have been defending the state in the case.

“That the record in this matter is still open, that defendants’ counsel was not notified of the communications or given an opportunity to respond, and that some of the emails’ content suggest that the judge is coaching the plaintiffs’ counsel in order to improve their case, raise a reasonable question regarding the judge’s impartiality,” state attorneys said in the motion.

The motion will be ruled on by a separate judge in the 3rd Administrative Judicial Region of Texas. The presiding judge for the region is Billy Ray Stubblefield of Georgetown.

Houston attorney David Thompson, who represents one group of plaintiffs that includes the Dallas school district, disputed the state’s allegations and said the plaintiffs will vigorously contest the motion.

“We very strongly believe all the communications that have occurred in the case have been appropriate and consistent with the rules of procedure for Texas courts,” Thompson said.

He pointed out that state attorneys previously agreed that each side would submit proposed findings of fact to the judge that would not be shared — at least initially — with the opposing side.

“We hope this motion will be considered and ruled on expeditiously so that a final judgment can be entered and process moved forward,” Thompson said. “We believe Judge Dietz has conducted a very thorough and very fair trial on an issue of extreme importance to all citizens of Texas.”

Engaging in ex parte communication is a serious accusation, and if substantiated then recusal is a suitable remedy. As the facts are in dispute here, it’s too early to say if anything untoward happened. I look forward to the Thompson plaintiffs’ response – I wonder what if anything other plaintiff groups will have to say about this as well – and to Judge Stubblefield’s ruling.

So where does the school finance lawsuit stand?

Though Judge John Dietz issued a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs in the school finance lawsuit back in February, he still hasn’t written his full decision yet. That’s because he wanted to see what the Legislature did this session, so he could take it into account in his opinion. Well, the session is over and barring a veto or two, we know what we’ve gotten. How will that affect what Judge Dietz has to say? Probably not that much.

[W]ill a $3.4 billion increase in funding and a sharp reduction in high-stakes testing be enough to sway Dietz and ultimately the Texas Supreme Court?

Closing the chasm between districts may help with the issue of equity. The second issue, adequacy, is hotly contested, as education groups and others note that funding is, at best, where it was four years ago. And lawmakers did little to address the third major component of the case, the ruling that districts are locked into what is essentially an illegal statewide property tax.

Legislative leaders are nonetheless optimistic, while the plaintiff school districts see only a small impact.

“This should influence the final decision that Judge Dietz is going to write,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston. “With the combination of the reduction in STAAR testing and this infusion of cash into our schools, I believe the judge needs to revisit the issue. At the least, it could mean that the state may want to ask to reopen the case.”

In addition to the extra $3.4 billion in the coming two years — which erased a good chunk of the $5.4 billion funding reduction over the past two years — lawmakers also slashed the number of high school end-of-course tests required for graduation.

Instead of 15 exams, students will now have to pass just five — and the tougher tests like chemistry, physics, Algebra II and English III have been jettisoned. The testing requirements were a prominent part of the lawsuit against the state.

Attorney David Thompson, who represents Dallas, Fort Worth and dozens of other school districts, said the Legislature fell far short of what is needed to get the state out of its legal troubles.

“What they did this session was very significant and commendable,” he said, referring to the funding boost. “But you have to remember, it doesn’t even restore what was cut in 2011, not to mention increased costs for schools in the two years since then.”


David Hinojosa of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, one of the plaintiff lawyers in the school finance case, said a major problem is that the state hasn’t responded to the needs of lower-income and limited-English students, who cost more to educate.

“All the money that was taken out of the system in 2011 still hasn’t been put back in,” such as funding for the remedial programs that targeted low-achieving students, he noted.

Hinojosa agreed that steering most of the new money to lower- and medium-wealth school districts helps the state’s position on equal funding.

“This is the first time I have seen the Legislature react to its school finance shortcomings without being ordered to do it by the Supreme Court,” said Hinojosa, a veteran of two long-running school finance court fights in Texas.

Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, who proposed the original plan to eliminate funding gaps between districts, said the decision “will go a long way” in resolving the argument that the system is inequitable.

“Our lower-wealth districts will be getting a lot more and our higher-wealth districts won’t be getting much at all,” Deuell said. “That has been one of the primary issues in the lawsuit.”

But that still leaves the other major arguments. And in his initial ruling, Dietz seemed most concerned about schools not having enough money to properly educate all students and meet rigorous state standards.

The judge’s point was driven home in the National Education Association’s annual comparison of school spending this spring, which showed that Texas had slipped to 49th among the 50 states and District of Columbia in spending per pupil.

That’s a key point to consider. One of the plaintiffs’ arguments was that the Legislature had increased standards and curriculum requirements on school districts, but had not provided the means to pay for them. The Lege did restore some, though not all, of the funding they cut in 2011, but their response to the standards argument was to reduce the number of tests that students must take, though Rick Perry hasn’t signed those bills yet. Even if he does sign these bills, it’s an interesting question as to whether that was the better approach.

The state will get a chance to make that argument before Judge Dietz writes his ruling.

In a hearing in Dietz’s courtroom Wednesday, lawyers for both the districts and the state said that evidence should be updated following a legislative session in which Texas lawmakers made significant changes to public education policy. The judge asked all parties to return June 19 to present arguments over what the scope of those new hearings should be — including what issues they should cover and logistical questions, like limitations on discovery and other procedural rules.

Dietz warned lawyers against looking at the hearings as “a chance to clean up or make stronger” their arguments during the trial.

“I really think that the consideration is, was there a material change in the circumstances, was there a substantial change in circumstances by reason of” the most recent Legislature, he said.


On Wednesday, Dietz said he was still reviewing and making notes on a “densely packed,” 285-page written opinion, which he has not released and will once again be updated to include the results of the upcoming hearings.

After the hearing, Mark Trachtenberg, a lawyer for a group of school districts in the case, said he did not expect the legislative changes — one of which reduces the end-of-course exams that students must take to graduate — to substantially affect the judge’s ruling in favor of the school districts. He said new hearings were necessary to make sure that when the lawsuit reaches the state’s Supreme Court, justices there could issue a decision based on current circumstances.

Note that the briefing deadline is after the sign-or-veto deadline for Rick Perry; the fact that Perry may scotch the extra funding given to schools this year was brought up by the plaintiffs’ lawyers. My guess is that Judge Dietz will still opine that the Legislature has fallen short in many areas. Most school districts still have very little or no leeway in setting property tax rates. Equity is still an issue, and it’s hard to see how adequacy can have been achieved when funding levels are still down from four years ago. Dietz originally said that the Lege might need to come up with an addition $2000 per student per year. That number may be lower now after the regular session, but not by much. See here and here for some background, and EoW, the TSTA blog, and the Trib have more.

We have a long history of screwing public schools in this state

I’ve been meaning to post about this Texas Observer story about the current status of school finance, the litigation challenging it, and the story of how we got here. Here’s a little local angle to illustrate one of the many ways in which the system is messed up.

Even one of the state’s most efficient districts, Northwest Houston’s Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District (ISD), is bleeding out slowly after eight years of cuts.

Cy-Fair, the state’s third-largest district, has become a model for doing more with less. It’s consistently a top performer not only in the state comptroller’s rankings of budget efficiency, but also in state test scores. The district hasn’t suffered the massive teacher layoffs some others have, and spokeswoman Kelli Durham says that’s because the district has grown so adept at finding other places to cut. Still, Cy-Fair has scaled back its custodial contracts, cut money for field trips, and skimped on new furniture, trimming $125 million (20 percent of the district’s current budget) in less than a decade. They’ve gotten more waivers than ever before to exceed the state’s 22-student cap in kindergarten-through-4th grade classrooms.

To keep running smoothly through the tight times, Durham says, district leaders cashed in on trust and goodwill they’ve built with their community over time, asking teachers and the whole Cy-Fair community to do more for their schools. But that solution, Durham says, is not sustainable. “In reality, people can’t do double-time for a long period of time.”

Most districts receive more than Cy-Fair’s annual $4,800 per student, but some get even less. The state’s current funding scheme harms them all in different ways. In wealthy districts, parents pay thousands in taxes every month, then watch the state give it to some other school. Their kids sell candy bars and magazines so their school can make ends meet. In poorer districts, students may have to pay to ride the bus to a school that’s more crowded than ever—the sort of environment that makes it easier than ever for students to drop out without being missed.


In 2005, the Texas Supreme Court ruled the school finance system unconstitutional. With so many districts maxing out their property tax rates, the court ruled that the system amounted to a statewide property tax—outlawed by the state constitution. State lawmakers were ordered to reduce property tax rates, which they did in 2006, but not before muddling the whole system even more.

Rather than update the old formulas used to determine how much money a district should get, the Legislature in 2006 invented a new benchmark— “target revenue”— based on each district’s property tax revenues in 2005. The strategy was meant to protect districts from losing money as the state lowered property taxes. But it created its own grave inequities in funding between districts. Target revenue not only doesn’t provide districts enough money, it makes inequalities worse over time.

In an absurd twist, the target revenue system actually punished the school districts that were most efficient with their money. This is why Cy-Fair ISD finds itself at such a severe disadvantage under the current system. It’s a large district that got by for years by pinching pennies. But now the district’s funding is tied to its 2005 levels of property tax revenue and per-student spending.

“If we had not been so efficient, we would’ve come up with a better target revenue [figure],” says Durham, the Cy-Fair spokesperson.

HISD is largely in the same position. Its property tax rate is below the mandated cap, and it could have made up for at least some of the funding cuts by raising its rate, but as primarily argued by Trustee Harvin Moore, it shouldn’t be in the position of having to subsidize the state’s failure. Once again, we wait for the courts to step in and force the Lege to Do Something. Let’s hope this time the effect is positive.

In the meantime, of course, you can get involved locally and at the Capitol. I’ve already mentioned this, but it’s worth showing again (and again):

Here in Houston, in addition to the community grassroots meeting this evening, you can hear Wayne Pierce, the Executive Director of the Equity Center, and David Thompson, the lead litigator on the lawsuit for which HISD is a plaintiff, give a talk on where things stand and what you can do about it. The talk is Monday, March 5, from 10 to 12 at the United Way of Greater Houston, 50 Waugh Drive (map). Here’s a flyer with the details. You can also team up with the Equity Center as they press forward.

If you can’t attend that, you can attend a family fundraiser for the Texas Parent PAC on Sunday the 4th, from 2 to 4 at the Nature Discovery Center, 7112 Newcastle at Evergreen in Bellaire. More details for that are here. If you want to sign on as a sponsor, see here for more. Get informed, get involved, and get out and vote. And don’t forget who’s on your side and who isn’t.

School finance lawsuit #5

The plaintiffs keep on coming.

A lawsuit by a small group of parents claims Texas is not getting enough bang for its educational buck, and asks the state’s courts to address inefficiencies in how education funding is spent.

Attorneys plan to file their litigation Friday in Austin on behalf of five families who say Texas schools aren’t meeting their children’s needs, as well as Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education, a new group formed by three entrepreneurs. The plaintiffs made a copy of the filing available to The Associated Press before submitting it to the court.


[Lead attorney Chris] Diamond said the latest suit had nothing to do with the Legislature’s budget. He said it is about parents who “feel as if their children are trapped in an unproductive system.”

Going to court to settle school finance questions has been a staple in Texas for more than 40 years. Diamond said that in past rulings, the state high court has issued opinions that “all-but invited” a legal challenge to the overall way Texas pays for its schools.

“We’ve been challenging this funding issue, but we need to hear about the basic, fundamental issues in the system,” he said.

Diamond said the idea would be to have the courts force the Legislature’s hand, and rule the system unconstitutional so as to compel lawmakers to overhaul school finance.

I couldn’t find a website for “Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education” when I first googled them, which is always a bit suspicious. There was just something about what they were saying in this story that gave me an odd feeling. This confirmed it.

TREE’s founder, James Jones, said in a statement that Waiting for Superman, a documentary that highly praises charter schools, inspired him to “dedicate his personal time and resources to the cause of saving children who are trapped in dysfunctional and inefficient public schools in Texas.”

“Imagine if a parent didn’t think their child’s physician was meeting their kid’s needs and the law made it nearly impossible for them to change doctors. We owe it to our kids to do better than this,” said Jones, who runs a mineral royalty firm.

The lawsuit has high-profile supporters: Former Texas Supreme Court Justice Craig Enoch is a co-counsel, and former House Public Education Chairman Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, who left the Legislature in 2006, is the executive director of TREE.

In a statement, lead attorney Chris Diamond said the Texas Supreme Court has ruled that the question of funding is secondary to the question of efficiency. He said court has “issued a wide invitation for structural, qualitative reform that extends beyond the singular question of adequate funding” which the current system has not met.

Yeah, any group that has Kent Grusendorf on board is not to be trusted. I love how the story says that Grusendorf “left” the Lege in 2006. He left by getting beaten in the primary by Rep. Diane Patrick, who was backed by Parent PAC and who successfully attacked Grusendorf for his relentless hostility to public education. Subsequent googling found this press release for TREE, which in turn contained this website link. I presume Google’s indexing hadn’t caught up when I first went looking. There’s not much there, but at least they do have a website and it does contain their intervention pleading. Any lawyers want to comment on that?

The Statesman has some reactions to this effort.

Lonnie Hollingsworth, director of legal services and governmental relations for the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, said there is scant evidence that charter schools are more efficient since many of them get substantial private investments to supplement the public dollars they receive.

“It’s clearly an attempt to tag a policy agenda on a school finance lawsuit,” Hollingsworth said. “These are policy issues and they’ve been rejected by the Legislature.”

The group did not file a separate lawsuit but sought to join one of the existing suits.

Lawyers representing the school districts in the original lawsuit have the right to object to including the new plaintiffs. A judge will have the final say.

David Thompson, the lead lawyer on that suit, said no decision has been made on whether to do so. He welcomed some of the group’s arguments while disputing others.

“To the extent that there are allegations that school districts are being wasteful with funds, we strongly disagree and we believe the facts will show that school districts are being good stewards of public money,” Thompson said.

Thompson added that school districts are not afraid of competition from charter schools and are offering parents and children many new options. For example, the Austin school district recently hired IDEA Public Schools, a South Texas charter operator, to run a program out of an East Austin elementary school.

“We need to remember that 90 percent of the school-aged kids of Texas are in our (traditional) public schools, and any competition must be fair and on a level playing field,” Thompson said.

HISD does some partnering with charter schools as well. Go back and listen to my interview with Chris Barbic, the founder and now-former CEO of the YES Prep schools, in which he describes the relationship between charters and school districts as both cooperative and competitive. I will be very interested to see how the existing plaintiffs react to this. I don’t see it as a friendly intervention, but perhaps there’s more to it than I’m currently perceiving. The Texas Observer has more.

Don’t go counting school finance lawsuit money yet

The state of Texas is very likely to have to do something about school finance soon, but “soon” is not the same as “right now”.

Houston ISD counsel David Thompson was exuding confidence Saturday that Texas school districts will prevail in their four lawsuits challenging state funding — but he warned trustees not to expect relief for another two years.

“I think the cavalry are coming, but we’re still a couple years away,” he told the HISD board at its annual retreat, held Saturday at Horn Elementary School in Bellaire.


He said he expects the four suits to be consolidated for a trial court, and that the districts are seeking a trial date in early fall. Anticipating a trial lasting about six weeks, he said the goal is to get a decision before the start of the legislature in January 2013. The losing side (he expects that to be the state) will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, and presuming that appeal will be expedited, the earliest that a decision could be forthcoming would be late 2013.

A win for the plaintiffs would set the stage for a special session of the Legislature in 2014 to establish funding that will comply with the court’s ruling, Thompson said.

I don’t recall the West Orange-Cove lawsuit going to SCOTUS, but it may have just been that SCOTUS declined to hear the state’s appeal. I’ve been saying for awhile now that the pieces are in place for the 2014 election in this state to be seen as a genuine change election. There may be no incumbents running for re-election in any state (non-judicial) office, and we’ll have had one more tumultuous deficit-dominated legislative session by then. Having a special session to once again “fix” school finance a couple of months before that election could be the catalyst.

On a related note, did you catch this Patricia Kilday Hart column, in which State Rep. Scott Hochberg gives us a going-away present on school finance?

Rep. Scott Hochberg

Call it Exhibit A: Why Money Matters In Public Education. The revenue available to school districts co-relates exactly with how their students perform in the state’s elaborate accountability system.

Here’s how the numbers break out: On average, school districts that earned the “Exemplary” rating had $6,580 available to spend on educating each student. Districts earning the “Recognized” label could spend an average of $5,751 per student. “Academically Acceptable” districts, on average, had $5,662 per student. And the pariahs of the state’s accountability system – “Academically Unacceptable” districts? They had, on average, only $5,538 per student to spend.

So the school districts that pat themselves on the back for being “Exemplary” have a $1,000-per-student advantage over those rotten, no-good “Academically Unacceptable” districts.

I asked Hochberg, who has spent nearly 20 years in the Texas Legislature advocating a more equitable school funding system, what lessons we should take away from his chart.

“We have a system where the state picks the winners and losers,” he told me. “The state decides what districts are going to get the most money, and then they turn out to be ‘Exemplary’ and we act surprised. The state decides who is going to get the least money, and they turn out to be low-performing and we whip them.”

There’s more disturbing news. The wonky Hochberg decided to look at the number of students on free-and-reduced lunch in the districts of each accountability category. He found that “Exemplary” districts, on the average, have only 17 percent of their students on free-and-reduced lunch. Meanwhile, 85 percent of the students in “Unacceptable” districts qualify for free lunches, based on federal poverty guidelines. Since poor kids are more likely to move more often and have less-educated parents, they arrive at school with greater educational needs. Therefore, our so-called “Exemplary” districts “have the easiest kids to teach,” Hochberg pointed out.

But don’t worry. I’m sure if we threw more money at the poorer districts there would be no effect at all on their educational outcomes. So there’s no need to even try. Right?

A field guide to the school finance lawsuits

The Trib has a handy overview of the school finance lawsuits – who the plaintiffs are, who their lawyers are, and on what grounds they are suing. Among other things, it shows that I was correct in saying that there had only been three suits filed at the time that was written, with the Thompson lawsuit now in as of last Thursday. Anyway, since it’s often hard to tell the players without a scorecard, now you have a scorecard. Check it out.

At last, school finance lawsuit number 4

The fourth and presumably final school finance lawsuit was filed just before the holiday weekend.

The state’s largest school districts, including Houston and Cypress-Fairbanks, have filed a lawsuit claiming the public education system is inadequate and inequitable, the fourth such suit filed since the Legislature ended its session in September.

The latest suit involves more than 60 school districts and nearly 1.6 million students. More than 500 Texas school districts representing about 3.3 million children now are involved in school funding litigation against the state.

“We wish litigation weren’t necessary, but the nature of school finance just seems to be that you have this back-and-forth dialogue going on between the legislative branch and the judicial branch,” said Houston-based attorney David Thompson, lead lawyer in the large school-districts lawsuit. “It seems like a judicial decision seems to be a necessary spur to legislative action.”


Each of the four school finance lawsuits claims the state is not adequately funding education, particularly when the student enrollment grows by about 85,000 children per year. Most of the enrollment growth is made up of low income children, who cost more to educate.

“The big concern across the state is the massive cuts to public education at the very same time we’re facing the highest standards in the history of the state of Texas,” said Thompson, a former general counsel for the Texas Education Agency.

So now it’s up to the courts. The four suits are almost certain to be consolidated, and they’re likely to begin next fall, with a ruling possible before or during the 2013 legislative session. Matters won’t be settled till the Supreme Court rules, of course, but we ought to have a pretty good idea of what’s at stake by then. Let’s hope for the best.

And then there were three

Three school finance lawsuits, that is.

Flanked by Edgewood Superintendent Jose Cervantes, parents, students and community leaders from Texas districts, MALDEF attorney David Hinojosa highlighted three key claims in its suit at a press conference Tuesday.

The lawsuit claims the state has shown inequitable treatment against property-poor school districts in violation of the Texas Constitution, with gaps in funding forcing impoverished districts to tax at a higher rate than rich districts.

It says the state inadequately funds low-income and English Language Learner students’ education.

It claims that local school districts have lost all meaningful discretion in setting their tax rates by having to deal with a tax cap putting the biggest burden on poor districts.

The article refers to four such lawsuits, but as far as I can tell only three have been filed so far. The Equity Center lawsuit was first, in October, and the Texas School Coalition suit came last week. The Thompson lawsuit is still out there, but as far as I can tell from searching around, it has not been filed yet, and appears to have been delayed a bit. Originally expected to be filed in mid-November, this story from November 29, which I found on the Thompson & Horton LLP website, said that it was expected the week of December 5. As that has now come and gone, I presume we’re still waiting. And as with the redistricting litigation, these suits may well end up being joined, but it’s too early to say. According to the story, don’t expect any or all to go to trial till next fall.

More schools join the lawsuits


The Lubbock Independent School District announced Monday they will join the Texas Taxpayer and Student Fairness Coalition in an equity lawsuit against the state.

Simply put, LISD is receiving less money per student because they are one of the poorest districts, and LISD claims that is unfair.

LISD officials say the district currently receives $4,600 per student, where as Austin districts receive nearly $6,500 per student. Now they are joining 300 other Texas Schools and taking their case to the courtroom.

“We remain constant in the 2005-2006 school year in terms of revenue. This past legislative session we were cut well over $13, almost $14 million dollars,” said LISD Superintendent Dr. Karen Garza.

LISD says with those cuts from Austin, standards increased. For instance, The Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills Test will now be replaced with the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness or STAAR test. LISD says that requires students to have more math and science with less money.

“It’s largely contingent upon the legislature that eventually needs to fix some of the challenges and the issue in the ways schools are funded in the state of Texas,” said Garza.


The Abilene Independent School District board of trustees voted unanimously Monday night to join more than 20 other school districts in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Texas’ school funding system.

“No fundamental change in the education system has ever occurred without going to the courts for relief,” said Stan Lambert, board president.


The board voted to join a coalition of more than 20 school districts — including Fort Worth ISD, Austin ISD, Houston ISD and Katy ISD — being represented by Houston law firm Thompson & Horton LLP.

Lambert said the firm’s David Thompson argued a similar case before the Texas Supreme Court six years ago and won some small changes in the education funding system.

Lambert said the lawsuit was necessary because the state’s education funding system was fundamentally broken.

There are more than 1,000 school districts in Texas, and Lambert said he expected more than half of them to join the lawsuit by the time it is filed.

“We felt it was important for us to do our part,” Lambert said.

So that’s one more district for each of the known lawsuits; the Texas Taxpayer and Student Fairness Coalition has already filed its suit, while the Thompson suit is still in the works. At this point I’m more interested in the reasons why a given district would not be suing rather than why they are.

More school districts looking at school finance lawsuit

From San Antonio.

Trustees of the area’s two largest school districts — North East and Northside — on Tuesday deliberated about joining a lawsuit against the state over what some consider to be an inadequate and inequitable education funding system.

Houston attorney David Thompson, who plans to file a lawsuit, one of several expected over the issue, spoke to trustees of both districts during separate board meetings Tuesday night.

San Antonio, Harlandale and South San Antonio school districts have already joined a lawsuit filed by the Texas Taxpayer & Student Fairness Coalition.


Thompson plans to argue in his lawsuit that once the Legislature adopts standards to meet the state’s constitutional education requirements — such as setting college readiness goals and standardized testing expectations — the state is obligated to fund those mandates.

But because legislators cut school funding by $5 billion this year, Northside cut its budget by $61.4 million and NEISD cut its by $28.4 million.

“Did the Legislature order the highway department to go build roads and bridges that weren’t funded? Of course not,” Thompson said to NEISD trustees. “I wouldn’t want to drive on that bridge. Why would we do that to our kids?”

Thompson said that while the Equity Center lawsuit may draw more districts, he expects his lawsuit to represent more students. The Equity Center lawsuit has drawn more than 285 districts, according to a news release. Thompson said about two dozen districts have joined his lawsuit thus far. East Central ISD is also discussing it.

Depending on their student population, districts could pay up to $65,000 to join Thompson’s lawsuit, which he expects to file in mid-November.

Thompson’s lawsuit is the one that HISD voted to join. Austin ISD has joined the Texas Taxpayer & Student Fairness Coalition/Equity Center lawsuit. They will probably be joined at some point, along with a third lawsuit that will allege that the state is imposing an unconstitutional statewide property tax again, which was what the West Orange-Cove lawsuit was about. In the meantime, it’s a little confusing to keep track of them all – I now realize that I had thought HISD voted to join the Equity lawsuit, not the Thompson one. So many reasons to sue, so little time. Anyway, NEISD and Northside have not made a final decision yet, but I expect they’ll jump in.

UPDATE: I incorrectly started that Austin ISD voted to join the Equity Center lawsuit. They actually joined the Thompson lawsuit. It’s so hard to keep track. My thanks to Jenny LaCoste Caputo of the Texas Association of School Administrators for the catch.

Another school finance lawsuit update

The Trib brings some news about the impending school finance lawsuits. Yes, lawsuits – there are two in the works.

The Equity Center’s lawsuit will focus on fairness, attacking the target revenue system established in 2006 when lawmakers reduced the property tax rate and guaranteed that districts would get no less than the amount they received per student at that time. That stopgap has since become permanent, resulting in an arbitrary funding scheme in which neighboring school districts can have as much as a $7,000 difference in state spending per student — and, the Equity Center will argue, is wildly inefficient.

Many of the state’s 1,030 school districts, like its largest, Houston ISD, whose school board will take up the question at its meeting on Oct. 13, have yet to decide whether they will join a suit. But as of Tuesday, 139 districts — a mix of suburban, rural and inner-city schools of varying sizes, though they are primarily low- to middle-property wealth — have joined the Equity Center’s coalition of schools. In addition to schools, Executive Director Wayne Pierce said they also eventually plan to include taxpayers like business owners and parents in the suit as well.

See here, here, and here for some background. School Zone has a list of the districts that have signed on so far. I will be very interested to see if HISD joins in. I hope they do.

[Attorney David] Thompson’s group will focus primarily on adequacy and property tax issues, arguing that not only has the state failed to dedicate enough money to public education for schools to meet increasingly rigorous accountability standards, but that in doing so, it has not given local districts enough choice in how to spend or whether to raise property taxes — in effect, instituting an unconstitutional statewide property tax.

“Educational standards are continuing to go up, but the revenue is flat-lined — and in this session it’s gone down,” said Rickey Dailey, a spokesman for the Texas School Coalition, a group that represents “Chapter 41,” or property wealthy districts that send money back to the state through Robin Hood laws.

Seems to me both groups have strong cases. Ultimately, whatever the courts say – and nobody knows what they’ll do – it will be up to the Lege to fix it. They seem to like being ordered to take action rather than doing it themselves. They’re likely to get their chance soon.

RIP, David Thompson

What a terrible shock.

We loyal patrons of Murder by the Book, Houston’s go-to place for all things murder and mystery, are devastated to learn of David Thompson’s sudden passing yesterday. David, a Murder by the Book fixture for 21 years, seemed to know the guts of every book, and had an infallible sense of connecting customers to their Holy Mystery Grail.

David met his wife, McKenna Jordan, while both were employees. Along the way, she bought the bookstore, and he founded a mystery publishing company, Busted Flush Press, which features both aspiring writers and established notables such as Reed Farrell Coleman.

I’ve been patronizing MBTB since I moved to Houston in 1988. I introduced my parents to MBTB many years ago, and they insist on visiting whenever they’re in town. What makes the place special is the people who work there, who can tell you more about a given book or author off the top of their head than a dozen Google searches. You could feel the passion, the love, that David had for mystery books every time you entered. Like any repeat customer, they’ve recommended more authors to me than I can count, with an extremely high batting average. Houston has lost a special person, and I’m deeply saddened by this news. My sincere condolences to McKenna and everyone at MBTB. For many more tributes to David and his life, see ‘stina, the MBTB Facebook page, and Sarah Weinman. Rest in peace, David.