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Texas Judge Grants 1-Month Extension For a Funding Plan

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A Texas judge last week ensured that the state's schools would remain open through the end of the school year by giving the legislature another month to devise a school-funding formula.

But State District Judge Scott McCown also said he would appoint an independent "master" to develop an alternate plan and that he would consider adopting it if lawmakers miss the new deadline.

The judge issued his ruling on May 1, the due-date set by the Texas Supreme Court last fall for enactment of a finance-reform plan that would narrow the wide disparities in spending between rich and poor districts in the state.

By extending the deadline to June 1, the judge recognized that the legislature "is working in good faith to resolve this critical issue of education reform," Gov. William P. Clements Jr. said in a statement.

Judge McCown, who delivered his opinion orally, also said that there would be no further extensions.

Lawmakers had given final approval to a school-finance bill April 27. But Mr. Clements vetoed it May 1, and called the legislature into its third special session of the year.

Mr. Clements strongly objected to the legislation's funding mechanism, a half-cent increase in the sales tax.

Although some lawmakers said last week that they wanted to begin the school-finance debate anew, House and Senate leaders reportedly were preparing to advance a plan similar to the one they sent to the Governor last month.

Despite their disagreements, Mr. Clements, lawmakers, the plaintiffs, and educators all appeared pleased with the ruling.

"This is a good development," said Craig Foster, executive director of the Equity Center, a coalition of low-wealth districts. "We're very pleased with it."

James R. Vasquez, superintendent of the Edgewood school district, the lead plaintiff in the case, said, "We now have a way of bringing the legislature and the Governor to an understanding."

"I'll be glad when this is finally over," he added.

McCown's Ruling

While Judge McCown's ruling was not set to be released in written form until this week, several sources who were present when it was issued from the bench described its major elements.

Under the decision, the legislature may continue working on a finance-reform bill until June 1. The court-appointed master, who is expected to be named this week, will also ready a plan for completion by that date. The master's plan cannot raise any new revenue, the judge said, or require a new funding mechanism.

After June 1, the situation becomes considerably more muddled. Three possibilities present themselves, observers said.

If the legislature passes a plan, the court will consider it. If the legislature fails to pass a plan--or if the Governor vetoes it--the court will consider the master's proposal.

But there is also a chance Judge McCown will consider a plan passed by the legislature after June 1.

On June 1, Judge McCown said, either the master's or the legislature's plan will be submitted for comment to both plaintiffs and defendants, who must file briefs by June 22. The judge will then hold a hearing and rule on the plan's constitutionality June 25.

But the court order does not prohibit the legislature from meeting after June 1. Instead, it prohibits the state from releasing any funds for education after that date.

If they do not adopt a plan by June 1, lawmakers may still be able submit their proposal for the judge's review. Observers agreed this was a gray area of the ruling.

Upon receiving a bill from the legislature, Mr. Clements has three options: He can sign the measure into law, veto it, or do nothing.

If Mr. Clements signs the bill or does nothing--even after June 1--the bill may be considered in lieu of the master's plan. Under Texas law, any bill passed by the legislature but neither signed nor vetoed by the governor becomes law 20 days after the end of the legislative session.

There is the possibility, a spokesman for Attorney General Jim Mattox acknowledged, that Mr. Clements could receive a bill after June 1, and simply wait for the judge's ruling before taking any action on it.

That possibility is contingent upon the judge consenting to review a plan that was not passed by June 1.

"The judge might send the legislature a warning for not finishing on time," said Elna Christopher, a spokesman for Mr. Mattox. But the judge could still decide to review its plan, she said.

A spokesman for the Governor declined to speculate about this scenario, or whether Mr. Clements would veto a bill reviewed favorably by the judge.

Meanwhile, lawmakers last week were beginning their debate anew.

Representative Ernestine V. Glossbrenner, the chairman of the House education committee, hopes to report out of committee a bill similar to the one earlier approved by the legislature, according to an aide. But several other plans have been introduced.

In the Senate, the education committee last week approved a bill that was virtually unchanged from the one passed previously. A vote by the full Senate was expected this week.

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