Tag Archives: Judge John Dietz

From the Texas Tribune: Experts: Expect Early 2016 School Finance Ruling

by Kiah Collier, The Texas Tribune
September 17, 2015

Earlier this month, the Texas Supreme Court heard hours of arguments in the latest challenge of the way the state funds its public schools.

Now, the big questions — other than exactly how the high court will rule — are when the court will rule and whether the decision will require the Legislature to come back to Austin to craft a fix before the 2017 regular legislative session.

Given past rulings and politics — three justices on the nine-member, all-Republican court are up for re-election next year — the consensus among experts and insiders is that a decision will come early next year and likely will require a 2016 special legislative session because it will favor, at least in part, the 600 school districts suing the state. That could mean that a school finance fix is in place before the next school year.

For the justices who will be on the GOP primary ballot, “the perfect situation” would be for a ruling to come after that March 1 contest, said Austin-based lobbyist and political consultant Bill Miller.

“If I were on the ballot, hypothetically, and I’m a justice, I want the election over with before big, monumental decisions are released,” he said, noting that judicial candidates now are expected to talk more openly about their rulings on the campaign trail.

So far, only one of the justices up for re-election — Debra Lehrmann — has a garnered a challenger, but the window to file to become a candidate has not opened yet. (It will close Nov. 14). The other justices up for re-election are Paul Green and Eva Guzman.

Any of them could be tasked with drafting a majority opinion in the school finance case, which experts say could give them some discretion as to how long the process takes but also put a target on their back during the campaign. (The justice who writes the majority opinion is decided at random, with justices drawing from a pile of “shuffled blue index cards” labeled with the appeals they’ve agreed to hear, explained court spokesman Osler McCarthy.)

A more important date than when the court rules is what deadline it might give the Legislature to come up with a fix, said Sheryl Pace, a senior analyst at the business-backed Texas Taxpayers and Research Association who specializes in school finance. (That’s assuming the court upholds at least part of a 2014 district court ruling that struck down the state’s school finance system as unconstitutional, which Pace thinks will happen.)

Past school finance rulings indicate the court is “usually concerned” not with elections but with giving the Legislature time to implement a fix before the next school year or until the end of the next regular legislative session, Pace said.

With no legislative session until 2017 — and considering the amount of time the court has taken to rule in the past — Pace is predicting a January 2016 ruling with a fix-it deadline six months after that.

The current school finance case is the seventh of its kind to reach the high court since the mid-1980s. In the six previous cases, the court typically has taken anywhere from two to eight months to rule from the time it hears arguments, according to dates provided by the research association.

But Houston-based lawyer David Thompson, who has worked on all seven school finance lawsuits, said he wouldn’t be surprised if the court takes longer to rule than usual — “early next spring is certainly reasonable” — because there are more parties involved who are “making some different argument than the court’s ever dealt with.”

Unlike in the past, when traditional school districts sued the state, this time the challengers include public charter schools and a coalition of parents, business interests and school choice advocates who believe that the traditional public school system is a monopoly. The charter schools say they should be funded the same as other public schools, while Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education says the state’s public education system is unconstitutional because it is inefficient and over-regulated.

Travis County District Court Judge John Dietz — a Democrat — ruled against the two non-school district parties in 2014, but they are appealing, meaning the state Supreme Court would have to address their arguments to some extent in any ruling.

At a three-hour hearing Sept. 1, lawyers for the state asked the court to toss the case — or at least to remand it to state district court given the funding increases and policy changes the Legislature has enacted during the two legislative sessions since 2011, the year school districts sued the state months after lawmakers slashed $5.4 billion from the public education budget.

“We are hopeful the court will end this cycle of endless litigation and recognize that Texas’ school finance decisions should be made by our Legislature,” the state attorney general’s office said in a statement.

Whatever the court’s decision, political consultants say it could have big political consequences for justices up for re-election.

“I think that there’s an equal price you will pay no matter what the decision is,” said Republican political consultant Todd Olsen, noting that polling has showed GOP primary voters favor spending more money on public education. “You will pay a heavy price if you essentially say, ‘Hey, there’s nothing wrong’ and pay a huge price if you say, ‘The Legislature has to figure out a new way to fund this.’”

But Olsen and Republican political consultant Ted Delisi, who works for state Supreme Court Justice Jeff Boyd (who is not up for re-election next year), noted that one of the last state Supreme Court justices to garner political scrutiny and opposition over a school finance ruling — now-U.S. Sen John Cornyn — emerged unscathed. In 1996, the year after the court approved a Cornyn-crafted decision that upheld the divisive “Robin Hood” plan, he won re-election by a healthy six-point margin, beating out two challengers in the November general election.

It is difficult — and pointless — to anticipate the political consequences of a school finance ruling, Delisi said.

“I think the very best Supreme Court justices are the ones that make their determination according to the law and then figure how to make a case to the voters that their competency or their conservatism is worthy of re-election,” he said.

Former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Phillips, who heard four different school finance lawsuits during his nearly 17 years on the court, said the timing of a ruling may be shaped by certain “external factors” — like the need for a special legislative session — but that elections have “never been much of an issue.”

“The first goal is to get it right and the second goal is to get it out timely,” he said. “I don’t think (the court’s) up against any artificial deadline.”

 

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2015/09/17/experts-expect-early-2016-school-finance-ruling/.  The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Court date set for school finance appeal

The Texas Supreme Court announced today that it intends to hear oral arguments in the appeal of a major school finance lawsuit starting Sept. 1. Lawyers representing numerous school districts across Texas have sued state officials claiming that the funding of our schools is inadequate and inequitable and amounts to an illegal statewide property tax. Since the bulk of funding for public schools comes from locally assessed property taxes, differences in property values and tax rates have caused vast disparities in how much revenue each school district is able to collect. The legislature also devised a complicated “recapture” system to try to redistribute funds more equitably throughout the state – a mechanism that many refer to as a “Robin Hood” plan – and minor tweaks to the funding laws in recent years have only exacerbated long-term problems with the system. The bottom line is that most schools have struggled to generate enough funding to meet rising standards and deal with population increases.

Retired District Judge John Dietz

Retired District Judge John Dietz

Former Travis County District Court Judge John Dietz ruled the state’s system of funding public schools unconstitutional in 2014 in response to multifaceted claims brought by several plaintiffs in a massive lawsuit over which the judge had presided since Oct. 2012. The state, represented by the Texas Attorney General, is appealing that ruling to the state’s highest court. The current lawsuit is only the latest in a string of challenges to the state’s convoluted system of funding schools across our large and diverse state.

During ATPE’s Political Involvement Training and Lobby Day event in February, Dietz spoke about the lawsuit in his first major public appearance since retiring from the court at the beginning of this year. He told a crowded ballroom of ATPE members and reporters, “We are dooming a generation of these children by providing an insufficient education.” Dietz urged the 84th Texas Legislature to take action right away to find a solution to the broken school finance system.

Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R) flanked by fellow legislators discussing school finance during the 84th legislative session

Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R) with fellow legislators discussing school finance earlier this year

Unfortunately, the pending appeal of the lawsuit was one reason cited by legislators who declined to pass a school finance reform bill during the 84th legislative session. As we reported previously on Teach the Vote, Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R), chairman of the House Public Education Committee, filed HB 1759 in an attempt to bring about at least modest increases in per pupil funding and equity. After being approved by the House Public Education Committee, the bill died on the House floor when Aycock opted to pull it off the crowded calendar on the last day for consideration. Depending on how and when the Supreme Court ultimately rules, it might become necessary for Gov. Greg Abbott (R) to call legislators back to Austin for a special session to address school finance. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote this fall for updates as the appeal proceeds.

Highlights from ATPE’s Political Involvement Training and Lobby Day

ATPE thanks all our members who braved the cold, wet weather to attend our Lobby Day events in Austin earlier this week. We also sincerely appreciate our guest speakers, Rev. Charles Foster Johnson of Pastors for Texas Children and Retired District Judge John Dietz. Attendees are reminded to watch for our follow-up email and encouraged to complete the online evaluation of the event to help us continue to offer excellent programs like this one in the future.

Read more about the event:

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District judge again rules Texas school finance system unconstitutional

Today, District Judge John Dietz issued a long-anticipated ruling in the latest round of cases challenging the constitutionality of Texas’ school finance system. Dietz found the state’s system unconstitutional on nearly all grounds alleged by the plaintiffs in the case.

Attorney General Greg Abbott, currently running for Texas Governor, defended the state in the lawsuit filed by attorneys representing hundreds of school districts. The districts suing the state argued that the method of funding public schools is inadequate, inequitable and amounts to an illegal state property tax.

Dietz agreed with the school district plaintiffs, writing that “the Legislature has failed to meet its constitutional duty to suitably provide for Texas public schools because the school finance system is structured, operated, and funded so that it cannot provide a constitutionally adequate education for all Texas schoolchildren.” The ruling also states that the system “cannot accomplish, and has not accomplished, a general diffusion of knowledge for all students due to insufficient funding.” In addition, Dietz held that the current system is inefficient based on the lack of equity in how school districts across the state are funded. Finally, the judge wrote that “the Texas school finance system effectively imposes a state property tax in violation of Article VIII, Section 1-e of the Texas Constitution because school districts do not have meaningful discretion over the levy, assessment, and disbursement of local property taxes.”

In rulings on some ancillary claims, Dietz declined to grant declaratory relief on “taxpayer equity” that was sought by one group of plaintiffs known as the Texas Taxpayer and Student Fairness Coalition. They were organized by the Equity Center and represented more than 400 school districts with low- to mid-property wealth. The coalition argued that under the state’s “target revenue” methodology, individual taxpayers residing in districts with lower property wealth cannot achieve the same benefit for their tax effort as those residing in districts with higher property values. The court ruled against a group known as Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education that intervened in the case under the direction of former House Public Education Committee chairman Kent Grusendorf; Dietz similarly denied some additional relief sought by the Texas Charter Schools Association. Those groups had argued that policy changes favoring school choice and the expansion and funding of charter schools, including charter facilities, would make the state’s school finance system more efficient.

Today’s decision was hardly surprising to those following the litigation in recent years. Dietz previously announced a preliminary opinion in Feb. 2013 in which he concluded that the state does not fund our public schools adequately or efficiently through its current system, which relies on local property taxes as its primary revenue source. Similar to today’s ruling, Dietz also said in 2013 that a lack of meaningful discretion in setting local property tax rates essentially amounts to a statewide property tax.

However, the court agreed to reopen the case for new evidence last year. The state argued unsuccessfully that additional funds appropriated by the Legislature in 2013, along with changes to graduation and student testing requirements, would negate any concerns that the system was broken. Dietz disagreed and stated, “All performance measures considered at trial, including STAAR tests, EOC exams, SATs, the ACTs, performance gaps, graduation rates, and dropout rates among others, demonstrated that Texas public schools are not accomplishing a general diffusion of knowledge due to inadequate funding.”

Earlier this summer, Abbott filed a motion to have Judge Dietz removed from the case, claiming that Dietz was biased in favor of the school district plaintiffs’ lawyers. Another judge denied the motion to recuse Dietz, who has presided over a series of school finance cases against the state for more than a decade. His 2004 school finance ruling, also finding the state’s system unconstitutional, was partially upheld by the Texas Supreme Court and resulted in the Legislature’s adoption of its current funding mechanism in 2006. Despite those changes, a structural deficit has persisted and the school finance system has failed to generate enough money to meet increasing state standards and expectations for schools and students. At the same time, the system has resulted in wide disparities in the amount of per-pupil funding from district to district.

Abbott is expected to appeal the district court’s ruling today to the Texas Supreme Court. A final decision is unlikely prior to the conclusion of 2015 legislative session, meaning that schools, teachers and students will have to keep waiting for a resolution to the broken funding system.

Click here to download the summary version of today’s school finance ruling. Read ATPE’s press release here.

Judge John Dietz to remain on school finance case

Earlier this month, Attorney General Greg Abbott filed a request on behalf of the State of Texas to remove State District Judge John Dietz from the ongoing school finance trial, a trial he has presided over since the trial began in October 2012. Visiting Judge David Peeples denied the state’s request on Monday.

Attorney General Abbott filed a motion to recuse Judge Dietz on June 2, arguing that Judge Dietz was biased in favor of plaintiff lawyers who have argued on behalf of school districts that the state’s school finance system is unconstitutional. The Attorney General pointed to emails Judge Dietz and his staff traded with school district attorneys. The state alleged the emails showed favoritism and “coaching.”

Judge Dietz did not voluntarily recuse himself from the trial and Judge Peeples was assigned to make a ruling on the motion. The court held a hearing on the matter on June 20.

Judge Peeples ruled that Judge Dietz believed all parties involved in the case understood the extent of the outside communication and did not object. Peeples rejected any suggestion that Judge Dietz knew the state objected to such discussions and nonetheless engaged in the discussions unethically. Judge Peeples ultimately ruled: “The circumstances shown by the evidence do not justify recusal. The State’s Motion to Recuse Judge Dietz is respectfully denied.”

The school finance trial has been a hot topic in the campaign for Governor as Senator Wendy Davis continues to call on Attorney General Abbott to settle the case. She claims the Attorney General’s motion to recuse Judge Dietz was a political move to delay the final ruling in the case until after the November election. The Attorney General’s office argues that an unbiased judge is more important than a quick conclusion in the case. The Attorney General’s office has the option to appeal Judge Peeples’ ruling.