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Judge to hear new evidence in school finance case

Will Weissert, Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -- Texas will crack open its already-decided school finance trial in January for new testimony on how the Legislature's recent restoration of classroom funding affects the case, a judge ruled Wednesday.

After 45 days of grueling testimony, State District Judge John Dietz ruled in February that Texas provides inadequate and inequitable funding for schools. But he based his decision on lawmakers cutting $5.4 billion from public education 2011. In May, the Legislature approved a new state budget that restored $3.4 billion.

Legislators also cut the number of standardized tests high school students must pass to graduate from a nation-leading 15 to five. The original case hinged on schools having to prepare the state's 5-plus million public school attendees for sky-high academic standards as their budgets shrank.

"In some fashion, we need to evaluate and deduce whether there have been material and substantial changes, or even just changes, to the circumstances that are outlined in my February 4th decision," Dietz said. He wants to hear six weeks of new evidence, and set a Jan. 6 trial date.

The case began last October and though Dietz's gave his initial, verbal decision, he has yet to issue a longer, written ruling that will be the basis for the state's appeal to the Texas Supreme Court. Dietz says he's still working his way through a mountain of briefs — and it's not lost on him that hearing new evidence will push the release of his final ruling into next year.

"I'm thinking about rebranding this case, calling it not the school finance case but As the World Turns," Dietz said, referring to the soap opera that aired from 1956 until 2010. "There were 13,858 episodes of As the World Turns. We're getting pretty close."

The trial's second round will come as 2014 primary election season is gearing up. The state Legislature had also anticipated being called into special session next year to overhaul the school finance system based on Dietz's ruling and the appeals decision by the Supreme Court — but now it's possible the case may not be fully concluded until the start of the 2015 legislative session.

The case — the sixth of its kind since 1984 — took shape after the Legislature plugged massive budget shortfalls by cutting $4 billion from base education and an additional $1.4 billion from grant programs.

More than 600 school districts responsible for educating two-thirds of the state's public school students sued, claiming the cuts violated the Texas Constitution's guarantees to an adequate education, and that the "Robin Hood" finance system — where districts in wealthy areas share property-tax revenue with those in poorer parts — meant funding was distributed unfairly.

With the Texas economy now booming again, however, lawmakers rolled back many of those cuts in May. The districts continue to argue, though, that the new funding doesn't fix fundamental flaws, and Dietz isn't planning on changing his ruling that it's unconstitutional.

Still, attorney Mark Trachtenberg, who represents a group of districts in wealthy parts of Texas, argued before Dietz's ruling Wednesday that unless new evidence is introduced, the Supreme Court could refuse to hear any appeals, citing an incomplete record.

"It's highly likely we'd be right back in this court in six months if we don't do it," Trachtenberg said of reopening the case. Dietz quipped: "I want you to remember that quote."

Arguing on behalf of the state, Assistant District Attorney Shelley Dahlberg agreed that the court has a responsibility to examine what's changed since lawmakers met this spring.

Some of the suing school districts unsuccessfully opposed reopening the case, including David Hinojosa, representing schools in largely low-income South Texas, as well as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Hinojosa said the effects of the increased school funding approved by the Legislature won't be seen for years.

"Granting the motion will cause injustice," Hinojosa told Dietz.

But Rick Gray, a lawyer who represents more than 400 school districts, noted that new evidence won't change the case's ultimate outcome.

"I don't see that there's any possibility that they made the system adequate," he said.