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Stories Added - November 2008
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School finance will top legislative agenda
Polk County Enterprise - November 2008
LIVINGSTON — Trustees for the Livingston Independent School District held a special workshop meeting with Rep. John Otto (R-Dayton) to discuss the worsening fi nancial crisis facing Texas public schools. Otto served on the Appropriations Committee in the Texas House of Representatives last session and was assigned to the Subcommittee on Education. He told LISD board members that public school fi nance has been targeted as a major focus for the session set to begin in January, but the devastation of Hurricanes Ike and Gustav may diminish that slightly. Those storms arriving just three years after Hurricane Rita have bankrupted the Texas Windstorm Insurance Pool, according to Otto. As a result, the legislature will be required to take action to replenish that fund. The Texas “rainy day fund” has a current balance of $7 billion and the general revenue fund has about $3 billion, Otto said. Initial damage estimates to UTMB facilities in Galveston are $600 to $700 million, he added. Meanwhile, Texas public schools have been forced to “compress” local tax rates by two-thirds since the passage of SB 1 which drastically overhauled funded for all Texas school districts. That legislative changed locked in Livingston ISD at a total revenue $4,700 per weighted average daily attendance (WADA). Some Texas school districts have current revenues of $6,800 per WADA. “For a conservative district that does the best they can with their tax money, they got the short end of the stick,” LISD Superintendent Darrell Myers said. Otto said he hopes to see legislation passed that will take care of the demands on school districts created by population growth and another $1-$2 billion allocated to help bring up the districts with a below average WADA. “I’m not naive enough to believe that Austin (ISD) and people like that are going to let the playing fi eld get leveled all at once,” Myers said. Otto responded that he hopes to create a fi ve-year plan that will bring those districts at the bottom up more than those on top and eventually even it out. Myers and the other board members told Otto that the legislature also needs to look at some type of funding that will allow for inflation. “My budget is bare bones this year,” Myers said. “There are no contingencies and we had no opportunity to give any of my people a (cost of living) raise.” In fact, to fund the mandated step raises for certified teachers, the board opted to forego the planned bus purchase. Myers added that he has asked all department heads in the district to hold back 10 percent of their budget because there are no contingencies built in. The budget was balanced when the board adopted it, but days later Hurricane Ike roared through the county. “None of us when we left the session in 2007 saw what diesel was going to do,” Otto said. At that time property insurance was the major cost increase. Hurricane Rita drove up insurance prices about 300 percent in the Gulf Coast area and has a disproportionate affect on budgets in those school districts. The changes brought about by H.B. 1 included changing from a funding formula commonly referred to as the Robin Hood that took property tax revenue from wealthier districts and gave it to poorer districts. The current funding plan uses target revenues and “hold harmless” funding levels, but doesn’t account for mandated teacher salary increases, utility and fuel cost increases. H.B. 1 also mandated four years of math and science courses for all high school students, whether they plan to attend college or go directly into the work force. Although the legislature did allocate some funds for those upgrades — the effectiveness of which is still under debate — it did not cover the actual costs. At Livingston High School it forced the district to purchase two additional portable buildings equipped as science labs in addition to hiring additional teachers certified in areas that already had shortages before the additional courses were mandated. “At the state level, we gate property tax relief and put it back on the local school boards — the responsibility that if you want extra dollars you can go out and ask voters for a rollback, knowing it puts them on the hook with their local taxpayers,” Otto said. Trustees also suggested the legislature look at the available school fund. Those funds go to 10 to 15 percent of the districts — many of which are already classified as Chapter 41 or wealthier districts. Otto said a number of school superintendents said they would like to see more funding plans that come from those “enrichment pennies” from the available school fund and the high school allotment. The high school allotment is targeted to reduce dropout numbers, increase enrollment in advanced courses, increase the percentage of students graduating on the recommended high school program and increase the number of students who achieve the higher education readiness qualifying scores on English, language arts and math sections of the exit-level TAKS test. Myers also cited unrealistic aspects of the legislatures 65 percent rule that requires districts to spend 65 percent of their budget on direct instructional expenses. Two areas that are not designated as instructional expenses are transportation and food service, but they do include football and that boggles the mind, Myers said. “Once they get here we have to have lights. We have to have transportation or we’re not going to get the kids to school,” Myers said. Otto said the attempt to do something that’s one size fits all doesn’t work. “Trying to set some arbitrary 65 percent number for over 1,100 districts that are not the same — it’s not realistic.” Myers said he believes the financial accountability system has work, but doesn’t agree with what is included as instructional costs to meet the 65 percent. Otto said he was more in favor of a system that compared districts against their peers in size and wealth. Otto said he is not in favor of the mandated four-by-four math and science courses. In meetings of the Select Committee on Education during the legislative interim, Otto said officials have been discussing a dual track option that allows students to focus on job skills and career prep. The Lamar Institute of Technology has implemented a work force academy that is an example of a very successful program. Graduates that complete that academy are going into jobs that pay $25 to $50 per hour, Otto said. He added that he will work to create policies that encourage similar programs. Near the conclusion of the workshop, Otto agreed to oppose any unfunded mandates during the next legislative session.