DONNA, Texas -- Like hundreds of teachers and administrators in the state's poorest corners, Runn Elementary Principal Ofelia Gaona is nervous about the possibility of losing millions of dollars in funding.
Across Texas, school boards are deciding whether to join a lawsuit challenging a share-the-wealth plan that peels cash from the property taxes of rich districts, then passes the money to poorer areas.
"You do feel for those other people, but they've got excess," Gaona said. "We have to educate all our children, not just the children of the wealthy."
So far, 22 wealthy school districts have agreed to sue the state and more are expected to follow. The lawsuit won't be filed until the state's 84 property-rich districts have decided whether to join.
In the state's struggling pockets, memories of the fight for equal funding are fresh. Underprivileged districts sued Texas in 1984 for sending poor students to inferior schools, setting off the wrenching, decade-long legal battle that ended in the "Robin Hood" spending plan.
Runn Elementary, a rundown sprinkling of battered buildings and trailers, depends on Texas handouts. The district draws $54.6 million -- half the annual budget -- from the state.
Students live with their families in abandoned school buses and, in one case, an old horse trailer. The school has neither covered walkways nor a gymnasium, and two kindergarten classes are sometimes crammed into one room.
"How are we supposed to tax these families?" Gaona said.
Administrators at the wealthier schools say they don't want the poor districts to suffer. But, they say, the state should carve the money out of its budget instead of forcing wealthy areas to care for their underprivileged counterparts.
"How they do it? That's up to them," said John P. Connolly, superintendent of Highland Park Independent School District in the Dallas area.
Debate about who should pay to educate students in poor districts is roiling across the nation. As of January, 19 state supreme courts had ruled school funding systems unconstitutional. In all of those states, poor, usually rural or urban schools received less money than wealthy, suburban schools.
"It's a question of politics, of government and whose money it is," said Craig Foster, spokesman for the Austin-based Equity Center, a group that advises poor school districts. "It's about notions of taxing."
President Bush was no fan of Robin Hood spending. The former Texas governor fought to lower property taxes and retool the program to rely on general state revenue rather than property taxes.
Robin Hood was "a court-ordered system that I tried to change," Bush remarked last year.
Texas has neither income tax nor a state property tax. School districts can collect no more than $1.50 per $100 property valuation to run and maintain their schools.
But about a fifth of the state's 1,000 districts already have bumped into the tax ceiling. With Texas seizing a chunk for poor schools, wealthy areas are frustrated by their inability to raise more money.
On the edge of Fort Worth, Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District has paid almost $80 million to the state since 1993, and expects to cough up another $28 million this academic year.
With costs rising and the student population holding steady, the district is running out of money, spokeswoman Robin McClure said. Students now pay a $150 athletic participation fee, and private money is used to hire teachers and staff.
"We feel like it's unfairly penalizing our community," McClure said.
The Robin Hood spending plan is expected to be re-examined after the legislative session ends in May. The next regular session begins in 2003.
Meanwhile, cash disparities plague Texas schools. On average, a wealthy school has $800,000 more each year than a poor campus with the same student population, said Foster, of the Equity Center.
"They're struggling, but by the same token we're struggling," said Roger Hailey, superintendent in the rural East Texas town of Henderson. His schools couldn't operate without the $10 million in state funds, he said.
"I don't want to see the (wealthy districts) unable to do for their kids -- I just want to be able to do the same things for mine."
On the Net:
Texas Education Agency: http://www.tea.state.tx.us
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