AUSTIN, Texas (CN) – Texas cut millions of dollars in funding for more than 100 students in a border school district because of false claims that the students live in Mexico, the school district claims in court.
The Progreso Independent School District sued the Texas Education Agency and its Commissioner Michael L. Williams in Travis County Court on Tuesday, alleging violations of the Texas Education Code and Texas Constitution.
Progreso ISD is in Hidalgo County, near the Mexico border. Crossing the border to Nuevo Progreso, Mexico is a daily event for many residents of the city of Progreso, the school district points out in its complaint.
The district has 2,157 students, of whom 99.7 percent are Hispanic, 99.4 percent are economically disadvantaged, and 54.3 percent English-language learners.
Both Spanish and English are linguas francas along the Texas-Mexico border.
The Foundation School Program (FSP) is the primary source of state funding for Texas school districts, according to the Texas Education Agency website. The program is supposed to give school districts “substantially equal access to similar revenue per student at similar tax effort.”
But the Progreso ISD says the TEA continually adjusts school districts’ FSP funding “in the form of credits and debits based on revisions to attendance data and changes to other inputs into the school finance formulas.”
The TEA withheld millions of dollars from Progreso ISD for the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years, after an audit of its attendance records, which, the state claimed, showed that the district was educating students who were residents of Mexico.
The basis for these allegations was that TEA investigators saw students being taken by private vehicles from Mexico to school in Progreso ISD in the mornings and returning across the border to Mexico at the end of the school day, according to the complaint. The investigators supposedly followed the vehicles from the campus.
The TEA gave Progreso ISD its preliminary findings in a June 25, 2014 letter that included a list of students who allegedly live in Mexico.
The list had 102 students for the 2011-12 school year and 130 students for the 2012-13 school year. TEA also claimed that Progreso ISD staff had provided it with a list of students who “resided in Mexico and attended school in the Progreso ISD.”
The district disputes this and says its employees merely gave TEA a list of students who rode in private vehicles across the border.
The TEA then demanded $1.8 million in alleged overpayments for the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years, and said it would review the district’s 2013-14 data.
Progreso ISD submitted a written response on July 11, 2014 that “refuted these allegations,” the district says in the 45-page complaint.
The district claims that the TEA then “changed its position and decided to withhold funding because the district’s policies regarding residency were allegedly inadequate.”
The district disputes that as well, says it has “the same policy regarding proof of residency as do 737 other school districts in Texas.”
It also claims that its own investigation, which included home visits, showed that “the vast majority of these students were residents of Texas living in the district and were properly admitted to the district.”
It also challenged “the legality of TEA’s position regarding the district’s purposed [sic] duties and obligations to monitor residency status after enrollment.”
In an interview with Courthouse News, Progreso ISD attorney Darren Gibson said the district’s investigation, and home visits, confirmed that at least 70 percent of the students at issue were Texas residents.
The investigation also showed that some of the disputed students were actually children of employees who work in the school district, Gibson said.
The attorney said the TEA ignored the school district’s at-home visit data and withheld the funding anyway. Gibson said that at-home visits by the district are not required by law.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plyler v Doe, (1982) that public schools could not deny admission to children who live in the school district because of their presumed undocumented status. The case originated in Texas.
Progreso ISD says in the lawsuit that its July 11, 2014 response offered to “go through the documentation, facts, and circumstances regarding each student in detail with TEA investigators,” but the TEA refused to examine the records.
The TEA reached its conclusions “based solely on the fact that these students allegedly boarded private vehicles at the end of the school day and were then transported in those vehicles across the border into Nuevo Progreso, Mexico,” according to the complaint.
Progreso ISD says there are a host of reasons why students might be taken to Nuevo Progreso at the end of the school day, including for after-school care, jobs or to visit family members.
Progreso ISD also claims the Texas Education Code (Sec. 25.001) entitles some students living in Mexico to a free public education in Texas. This includes cases in which a parent who is a joint managing conservator is a Texas resident, a grandparent caregiver is a Texas resident, or if the student is homeless.
The district says it is required to educate homeless children, even if they may occasionally live in Mexico with friends or family during the school year.
The TEA issued a Dec. 16, 2014 final report to Progreso ISD, citing reasons not mentioned in its preliminary findings. TEA claimed that “the district’s local admissions policy does not detail the documents that the district will use to verify residency” and that “(t)he district should have taken further action to ensure that the students were eligible to receive state funds,” according to the complaint.
But attorney Gibson says a school district’s monitoring of students’ residency status during the school year is not legally required. Texas law states that a student’s residency status and eligibility for a free public education is determined “as of the first day of September of the school year of enrollment,” according to the complaint.
The TEA denied Progreso ISD’s appeal of the withheld funding.
Progreso ISD says it is being unfairly singled out by the TEA and punished with administrative and other burdens that other school districts do not face.
“TEA punished the district for failing to have a policy in place that is not required by state law,” the complaint states.
Gibson said TEA’s funding cuts are unconstitutional.
Progreso ISD seeks multiple declaratory judgments, including:
that Commissioner Williams and the TEA do not have authority to mandate that a district adopt a particular policy regarding proof of residency;
that the TEA cannot require districts to monitor the residency status of students throughout the school year;
that the TEA does not have authority to withhold or reclaim FSP funding based on a district’s lack of such a policy or failure to verify or monitor residency status of students;
that the TEA’s Eligibility Monitoring Rule is an ad hoc rule and is invalid;
that its Proof-of-Residency Policy Rule is an ad hoc rule and is invalid;
that certain provisions of the Student Attendance Accounting Handbook are invalid; and that the TEA violates the Texas Constitution by withholding FSP funds from Progreso ISD.
It also seeks an injunction and court costs.
Gibson works with O’Hanlon, McCollom & Demerath, in Austin.
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