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Tex. Lawmakers Again Adjourn Stalled Over Finance

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Although the Texas legislature has again adjourned without a consensus on school-finance reforms, a plan offered during the waning days of this month's special session has given officials a glint of optimism that a solution might be found early next year.

A constitutional amendment designed to precede a new finance law fell 10 votes short of the supermajority needed in the House. Another version of the amendment had easily passed the Senate earlier in the session, which was called to give lawmakers an early jump on resolving the state's ongoing school-finance crisis.

Fast action is needed because a judge has vowed to shut down the nation's second-largest state school system if an acceptable funding plan is not passed by June.

While frustration was high at the end of the session, lawmakers at least departed with a new option in hand.

A group of 13 education organizations, with the notable exception of any of the state's teachers' groups, offered a plan that is highlighted by the offer of the plaintiffs in the original school-finance-equity case to drop their lawsuit.

Based on 1991 Law

The plan incorporates many of the funding provisions passed by the legislature last year. That bill was struck down by the state supreme court, which ruled that it effectively imposed an unconstitutional statewide property tax.

The settlement plan would eliminate the county education districts created by the 1991 plan to redistribute local funds. But it would allow the statewide redistribution of some local funds, capped at 2.75 percent of state and local school revenue.

Bowing to poor economic conditions, the plan would provide only a relatively modest amount of new funds--$650 million--over the next two years. Thereafter, however, it would restore the state-aid provisions of the 1991 plan, which guaranteed a $2,800 basic allotment for each student along with promised state funds based on local tax rates.

The plan would also waive some state mandates and allow districts further relief when local tax increases are required through the 1994-95 school year.

Finally, the plan would include a constitutional amendment that would formalize the 2.75 percent recapture rate, authorize $750 million in bonds for school-building projects, change the distribution of a supplemental state school-aid fund, and allow lawmakers to set a minimum level of school support.

In the short run, the plan would remove the threat of a court challenge and require minimal new state funds over the next two years. After that, however, the price tag could begin to soar as the 1991 funding promises kick in, officials noted.

'Shake It Loose'

The question before lawmakers now is whether the plan is a good balance and whether the possibility of a lawsuit settlement is enough to win the required two-thirds majority in the House.

"We're more hopeful about the prospects just because this was a lame-duck session,'' said Nancy Cotton, a spokeswoman for the Texas Association of School Boards. "It was hard to build any coalitions in the House because the Speaker didn't have anything to hold over their heads.''

The special session was presided over by Speaker of the House Gib Lewis, who is retiring. But the regular session that begins Jan. 12 will have a new Speaker, whose clout will be enhanced by the power to name committee chairmen.

"If this can't shake it loose, we're in trouble,'' said Donna J. Blevins, the director of communications for the Equity Center, a group of property-poor school districts that is behind the new plan.

"We understand that the state is in dire straits, we're not going to get them to revamp the tax system, and everybody is going to feel the pain,'' said Ms. Blevins, who predicted that massive consolidations are the only alternative to the new proposal.

"We're not going to insist that everything be taken care of in two years, but we expect them to start funding equity and adequacy beginning in three years,'' she said.

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