Local school district leaders are hopeful about the future of the state’s education funding system, after a Texas judged ruled Monday that the current system of public school funding was unconstitutional.

“This ruling confirmed what Texas school districts have been saying for a while now,” said Robert Muller, superintendent for the Killeen Independent School District.

District Court Judge John Dietz ruled in favor of the more than 600 school districts that brought litigation against the state, after lawmakers cut $5.4 billion in education funding from the budget in 2011.

In the same year, districts across the state began a new assessment test and accountability system that was significantly more rigorous. In his ruling, Dietz said the state didn’t provide the necessary resources to help students meet those new, higher standards.

“I agree with the decision,” said Michael Novotny, Salado Independent School District superintendent. “I think it sent a message to the Legislature that we need to make a change and make sure we adequately fund education.”

Salado, like the Copperas Cove and Killeen districts, was not among the 600 districts that joined the lawsuit. The Belton, Temple and Lampasas school districts did.

“We got into the litigation pretty early, because we saw that we were not getting the help we needed from the Legislature to fairly and equitably fund education,” said Randy Pittenger, president of the Belton district’s board of trustees. “The standards were increasing but our resources were shrinking and it was very clear that the only way we are going to get them to fix our fundamentally flawed system was through a court order.”

While many districts are lauding Monday’s decision, the battle is far from over and it is unlikely that districts will see any of the $5.4 billion in reduced funds returned anytime soon, nor is it likely they will see any changes to the state’s education funding system.

The case will almost certainly be appealed to the state’s Supreme Court, leaving lawmakers in the current legislative session to either wait for a final resolution, or tackle funding and funding reform before a Supreme Court ruling.

“We are cautiously optimistic about the ruling,” said Joseph Burns, the superintendent for the Copperas Cove Independent School District. “It will still be appealed to the Supreme Court, but this is a good first step.”

Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, who was recently named chairman of the House’s Public Education Committee, said the decision to restore the funding would fall in the purview of the House Appropriations Committee. He said legislators had a few options to consider moving forward.

“One idea is that we simply wait for the Supreme Court to make their ruling,” Aycock said. “Another idea would be to take our best shot at restoring funding the best way we can and see how that lines up with what the court decides. It’s hard to predict right now.”

Catherine Clark, director of governmental relations for the Texas Association of School Boards, said the ruling is about more than just getting the funding back. She said it was a call for lawmakers to address the larger issue of the state’s school funding system.

Clark said she believed lawmakers would likely wait until after the Supreme Court decision to address both issues.

“I can see the desire to wait for the Supreme Court to rule on this before they tackle it, but I also think that there could be some thoughtful legislators that will begin to think about what the options are ahead of time,” Clark said .

Contact Chris McGuinness at chrism@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7568. Follow him on Twitter at ChrismKDH.

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