Saturday, June 23, 2007

State to pay schools' legal fees - DISD, others in funding lawsuit awarded $4.2 million

By TERRENCE STUTZ - The Dallas Morning News - Friday, June 22, 2007

AUSTIN – Dallas and hundreds of other school districts that successfully challenged Texas' school finance system scored a follow-up victory Thursday when an appeals court awarded them $4.2 million in legal fees.

The 3rd Texas Court of Appeals overruled objections by state attorneys and ordered the state to pay the school districts' attorney fees.

In a unanimous decision, the appellate court said its decision was based in part on the failure of the state to file a timely appeal after a state judge awarded fees to the school districts.

"We hold that the award of attorneys' fees to each of the school districts was equitable and just, in light of the fact that the districts were required to pursue extensive and costly litigation in order to remedy a school finance problem with statewide implications,"
the three-judge panel said in its opinion.

"The record reflects that the districts made significant contributions in what turned out to be a highly complex lawsuit that required large amounts of statistical and demographic data."

The lawsuit culminated in a decision by the Texas Supreme Court in November 2005 that ordered the Legislature to fix the state's unconstitutional property tax system to finance public schools.

Six months later in a special session, state lawmakers approved a school funding system that was less dependent on property taxes. The legislation reduced local school property taxes by a third and replaced the revenue with higher taxes on businesses and smokers.
While the school districts won on the property tax argument, they lost on another argument that the state was not providing adequate funding to educate their students. The high court ruled for the state on the latter issue, but did caution that current funding levels for schools are barely adequate.

Because it was a split decision, the attorney general's office later argued that the school districts were not entitled to recovery of legal fees in the case.

But the appellate court justices said state attorneys made their argument too late and should have raised the point when the case was originally appealed to the Supreme Court. Because of that failure, the state waived its right to contest a lower-court decision from state District Judge John Dietz awarding the fees, according to the ruling.

Dallas lawyer George Bramblett, who represented one group of school districts, said the $4.2 million award would go back to the school districts, which have already paid their lawyers. "It is a reasonable amount considering that it covers legal work done over six years," Mr. Bramblett said. "We clearly had a right to recover fees because we won the case."

A spokesman for the attorney general's office said no decision has been made on whether to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.
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