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Economic advocates propose suing for equitable funding

20110506-Economic-advocatesMcALLEN — If Rio Grande Valley school districts want to fight for equitable funding per student in line with wealthier Texas school districts, it must pursue a litigation battle with the state, citing the unconstitutionality in school funding, Sharyland board Vice President Ricky Longoria said Wednesday.

But while schools can’t spend money on such litigation, Longoria suggested the business community help finance legal action as the impacts of budget shortfalls greatly impinge on commerce here.

Steve Ahlenius, president/CEO of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce, said the business associations should help finance the lawsuit to get the area the funding it’s been denied. In his urging, Ahlenius met his own challenge, committing his organization to help fund the lawsuit with the help of neighboring cities and businesses.

Local business organizations should all contribute to a “pot” for the effort, he added.

“We need to start a serious discussion” on litigation, Ahlenius said.

On Wednesday, business and economic leaders got a crash course in school funding as local school board officials asked for help in securing additional funding for Valley school districts in the next biennium.

“I was one of those individuals who had no idea how school districts got funded,” Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia said. “And it’s still confusing…(but) what happens to schools and school districts happens to all of us.”

Keith Patridge, the president/CEO of the McAllen Economic Development Corporation, said the effects of budget cuts and workforce reductions at school districts have a direct effect on local businesses and cities that depend on sales tax revenue to provide services in their cities.

“This is something that we do have a sense of emergency with,” he said.

Patridge said a local car dealership recently lost five sales from teachers who were unsure of their job security.

“This could have a very real impact on our economy,” he said of state and federal shortfalls in education.

As districts anticipate multi-million dollar budget cuts, Patridge said the business community could lose out on billions of dollars from school districts that are big consumers of the local economy.

“This is an issue of impact to our community and it’s going to impact all of us,” he said. “This is why we want to be involved.”

District superintendents and board members from all over Hidalgo County participated in the meeting. As these boards grapple with their budget cuts, neighboring districts began meeting for informal visits to compare and discuss the impacts of their budgetary losses, said McAllen Independent School District Board President Danny Vela.

Along with Longoria at Sharyland, their group has expanded to include district board members from Brownsville and Laredo, with several school districts in between, to work together to push legislators in the future to fight for RGV schools.

“We have to change the legislative process and equalize funding in Texas,” Vela said.

RGV Coalition of Board Members said local districts here suffer from not getting equitable funding per student. In a presentation on the basics of school funding, Edinburg Consolidated Independent School District Superintendent Dr. Rene Gutierrez explained the Edinburg district only gets $5,150 per student while districts like San Antonio’s Alamo Heights Independent School District receives $6,250. Several other districts receive up to $10,000 per student.

“There’s a lot of disparities and inequalities,” Gutierrez said.

The amount districts receive per student, called the weighted average daily attendance, or WADA, is helped set by property values. Yet local school leaders say the Valley receives less funding than other “richer” districts.

Earlier this week, Hidalgo County Commissioners’ Court approved a resolution in support of the group. Garcia said Valley districts should benefit from working together alongside their business communities to meet with legislators to ask for help.

“Adversity has a way of uniting people,” he said. “We need to get a united voice that will be heard.”

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