Judge may hold more hearings in Texas school finance case

By TERRENCE STUTZ Austin Bureau tstutz@dallasnews.com
Published: 05 June 2013 09:56 PM
Updated: 05 June 2013 10:16 PM

AUSTIN — The judge in the Texas school finance case said Wednesday he may hold another round of hearings this summer to consider the impact of recent actions by the Legislature on school funding and student testing.

State District Judge John Dietz made the announcement after he summoned attorneys in the case to court on Wednesday to get their views on the possibility of additional hearings before he issues his final ruling.

The judge made clear he will not hear new evidence unless there is “substantial agreement” among the parties — the state and plaintiff groups representing more than 600 school districts — that new hearings are needed. He also said the topics must be narrowly drawn.

“If we reopen the evidence, I would prefer it be focused on specific issues,” Dietz said, citing in particular the increased funding approved for schools and the reduction in the number of end-of-course tests that high school students will be required to pass. The testing requirements have been a major issue in the case.

If the parties agree to put on new evidence, the judge said he would consider whether the Legislature’s recent actions “cured” the constitutional problems in the school funding system that he cited in his initial Feb. 4 ruling.

In that decision, Dietz held that the funding system is not providing enough money for schools to meet state achievement standards for students. He also found that the system is inequitable and shortchanging lower-wealth school districts.

In response, the Legislature recently provided $3.4 billion in new money for schools over the next two years — the bulk of it going to lower- and medium-wealth districts — and also scaled back the high school testing program. The latter change reduces the number of tests that must be passed to earn a diploma from 15 to five.

Houston lawyer Mark Trachtenberg, representing 89 higher-wealth districts, asked Dietz to reopen testimony to consider the impact of the Legislature’s actions. State attorneys also supported additional hearings.

“We think the legislation will have a material impact on the education funding system and we need to update the record for the [Texas] Supreme Court,” Trachtenberg said.

Other plaintiff groups representing school districts indicated they were not yet ready to support additional hearings, particularly when Gov. Rick Perry has yet to sign the legislation that would be the subject of the hearings.
The governor has until June 16 to sign or veto bills passed during the regular session.

“I want to wait and see what gets signed and what gets vetoed. That could make a very significant difference in how we look at things after June 16,” said Houston lawyer David Thompson, who represents Dallas, Fort Worth and 82 other districts.

“If he vetoes a lot of things, there won’t be much need to reopen the record.”

Dietz asked attorneys to return to court on June 19 — after the veto deadline — and report to him the position of the various parties on holding more hearings. His final decision in the case is expected to be directly appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.

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