LHISD officials pleased with Judge’s ruling in school finance lawsuit

By SHELLY WILKISON

While Liberty Hill ISD did not join the 600 public school districts in their lawsuit against the state over school funding, local officials say they supported the cause and are waiting to see what the Legislature will do in response to a District Judge’s ruling Monday that the system is unconstitutional.

District Judge John Dietz of Travis County affirmed what school officials in Liberty Hill and across the state have claimed for years — that the state has not provided adequate resources while demanding school districts do more to educate students to higher standards.

“We weren’t surprised to hear the news. It was just a matter of time because we knew that funding wasn’t adequate,” said LHISD Business Manager Frank Watson. “The Judge said the state mandated higher standards, but we needed more money to do that.”

He explained that for several years, state lawmakers have shifted the burden of funding schools to the local level, but tied the hands of school districts when it came to raising local revenue and then deciding how best to use those funds.

In 2011, the Legislature cut funding to public schools by more than $5 billion. While many districts were forced to cut programs, close schools and lay off teachers, Liberty Hill was not among the hardest hit because of continued enrollment growth. The primary source of state funding is received by districts through average daily attendance (ADA).

In January, the State Comptroller announced lawmakers were starting the session with an unexpected surplus. Some elected officials and public school advocates have called for restoration of the 2011-2012 funding cuts.

Watson said that despite all of the talk circulating around the Capitol  about the possibility of restoring to school districts the funds that were cut in 2011, he does not expect state funding to increase in the next two years.

Gov. Rick Perry is among many who have suggested the Legislature wait until the state exhausts its appeals of the Dietz ruling before additional funding is appropriated. Watson said he believes that view will be the will of the majority.

“Schools try to position ourselves where if something unexpected happens we can survive,” Watson said. “But that doesn’t mean we can continue to survive for a long period of time. We’ve all tightened our belts.”

Watson said instead of laying off employees last year, the district did not give pay raises and did not fill some positions as they became vacant.

“But you can only do that for so long and we’re at a size that allowed us to do that. But our growing pains are not just about facilities, but also man hours,” he said, adding that many were called on to do more when positions were not filled.

Watson, who has been managing school finances for the past 23 years, said litigation regarding equity in school funding has been a constant throughout his career.

“There’s no quick answer for it, and nothing can be done overnight,” he said.

However, he is hopeful that Dietz’ decision this week has at the minimum caught the attention of some lawmakers.

“I think the legislative body as a whole realize something has to be done. It’s not just about increasing funding, but being able to put it in the right place and use it correctly,” he said.

Watson said he believes decisions about funding public education are better left to educators. He likened the issue to a similar one in the health industry regarding who is best qualified to make decisions about patient care — insurance companies or doctors.

“These decisions should be made by educators, not by government,” he said.

Watson and Liberty Hill ISD Superintendent Rob Hart are closely monitoring legislative discussions  regarding school funding and other   issues, he said.

“We’re still in a wait and see situation,” Watson said. “It will be interesting to see if anything actually happens in this legislative session to improve things.”

Watson said administrators decided not to join the lawsuit as a plaintiff because it would have cost the district thousands of dollars. He said they were confident that the end result would be in the districts’ favor and Liberty Hill’s presence as a plaintiff would not have impacted the outcome.