Texas Districts Make Pitch for Technology Aid

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Texas school districts that recently lost a court battle to get $97 million in new computer and technology money are now asking, not trying to order, state legislators to help.

But some lawmakers--angered that school officials did not go to them first--are less than receptive.

"We're either on the same team or we're adversaries," said Republican Sen. Bill Ratliff, the chairman of the finance committee. "I don't think anyone wins if schools run to court every time they're put out."

The districts, which included the Dallas and Houston schools, argued that a 1995 law revising the state school code directed the state to spend surplus education dollars--which now stand at $97 million--on aid for technology.

The funds would have increased from $30 to $55 the per-pupil technology allotment that the state provides its 3.5 million K-12 students.

Not an Appropriation

But Mike Moses, the state education commissioner, held that the Texas Education Agency would have to refuse to give up the extra money because the legislature's biennial budget passed in 1995 did not specify how surplus money should be spent.

State District Judge F. Scott McCown agreed with the TEA, writing in his Feb. 6 ruling that "a promise to make an appropriation is not an appropriation."

"We agree with the judge that we didn't have the authority to increase the funds paid to schools for technology," Joey Lozano, a spokesman for the education agency, said.

The judge said that disbursement of surplus education money is an issue that the legislature, not the courts, should handle.

The decision came a day after the Senate voted 26-4 in favor of a bill to reject the school districts' claim, stressing that the technology expenditure was not included in the current year's budget.

Mr. Ratliff, the author of the Senate bill, praised the judge's ruling: "The decision was critical. The lawsuit was trying to establish an implied appropriation. Either there is an appropriation, or there is not."

Schools Hold Out Hope

Responding to their high-profile defeat, school officials seemed to shrug their shoulders and then cross their fingers that legislators, who are now in session, will send the extra money to schools as technology aid despite the court battle.

"Initially, the reaction was one of disappointment," said Dan Powell, the assistant superintendent for business and finance for the Fort Worth schools. "But the dialogue over using the money for technology is ongoing."

The lawyer who handled the schools' case is looking at a possible appeal of the decision, Mr. Powell added.

Fort Worth alone stood to gain about $1.7 million from the lawsuit, which would nearly have doubled the state aid it gets for technology.

Mr. Powell said one-third of the computers used by the district's 76,000 students are more than 10 years old. And it is getting hard to find parts for many of the district's computers, he added.

"Obviously, we have to continue to make investments to make sure we are up to date," he said.

Houston school officials, perhaps more optimistically, hope that lawmakers will somehow view the ruling as a directive to funnel the extra money toward school technology.

"It's our belief that the judge's wish would be for the legislature to spread out the money for technology," said Terry Abbott, a spokesman for the Houston district.

He said each of the system's 250 schools has computers and is linked to the Internet. But the goal now is to give Houston's 209,000 students Internet access in all of their classrooms.

Houston would have gained about $4.5 million from the lawsuit.

Mr. Ratliff, who chaired the Senate education committee two years ago when the legislature rewrote the school code, does not believe lawmakers will send the leftover funds to schools for computers.

In his State of the State Address last month, Gov. George W. Bush listed new reading initiatives as his top priority for new school spending.

Just two years ago, Sen. Ratliff said, the legislature created the Technology Infrastructure Fund, which will raise $1.5 billion over 10 years from a tax on telephone bills to help schools and colleges wire buildings for new computers.

"That was a huge infusion," he said. "I think schools will get more money this year, but I'm not sure it will go to technology."

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