- Melissa B. Taboada American-Statesman Staff
Property owners who live in the Austin school district pay more than any others in the state to subsidize education funding across Texas. This year, the owner of the average-priced home paid $1,700 in property taxes that the Austin district was required to pass along to the state.
Even as the district grapples with a budget deficit, this year it is projected to send $534 million in property tax revenue to the state for that so-called recapture payment.
But now Austin school leaders who have lobbied the Legislature for years to address inequities in the complex school finance system are getting a seat at the table to find ways to fix it.
The district’s chief financial officer, Nicole Conley Johnson, has been appointed to the 13-member Texas Commission on Public School Finance, which is tasked with making recommendations to the Legislature to improve education funding by the next legislative session.
It’s likely that the commission will examine whether the state’s funding formulas — some of which have not been updated for decades — remain relevant.
Those formulas mean the district is collecting more in taxes every year but not necessarily keeping more, even though half of its students are from low-income families and 1 in 4 speak little to no English, Conley Johnson said.
Conley Johnson said all districts should pay their fair share to ensure that students across the state get what they need, but the Austin district doesn’t “feel very rich,” as it has cut programs and continued to borrow from its savings to balance the budget.
“I can offer true insights on how the outdated formulas are adversely affecting the availability of resources to fund student needs and how taxpayers, for that matter, are bearing an increasingly high burden, becoming a primary source of state revenue,” Conley Johnson said.
The state determines which districts pay recapture based on property value divided by student attendance. The attendance figures are weighted to account for demographic and economic factors, but those weights have not been updated for decades.
Meanwhile, Texas has increasingly shifted the tax burden of public schools to property owners. Over the years, school property taxes have risen and the state has decreased its share of public education funding. More than half of school funding comes from local taxes, while the state pays less than 40 percent. In the late 1940s, the state’s share was about 80 percent.
The Legislature did little to change education funding in 2017. Instead of a bill that would have pumped $1.8 billion into Texas schools, lawmakers passed a scaled down version that includes $351 million in school spending and more than $200 million to reduce health care costs for retired teachers. But urban school districts get little, and Austin gets no additional money.
The announcement of Conley’s appointment this month by Texas House Speaker Joe Straus gives Central Texas heavy representation among the 13-member commission.
Pflugerville Superintendent Doug Killian also was appointed in October by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Former Texas Supreme Court Justice Scott Brister, an attorney in Georgetown, was appointed in November by Gov. Greg Abbott and will be chairman of the commission.
“All three have stellar reputations and deeply care about getting it right,” said Nikki Graham, the education chairwoman for the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.
With hundreds of thousands of Texas job openings for those with postsecondary degrees, the state needs a kindergarten through 12th grade system that ensures districts have the resources to produce greater percentages of college- and career-ready graduates, Graham said.
“At a minimum, the commission should determine ways to immediately and substantially reduce reliance on Central Texas taxpayers already subsidizing the state by $1.1 billion in this two-year budget cycle — an amount growing $200 million per year,” she said.
Killian said he hopes the commission at least will address some of the formulas, including spending for school transportation and the cost of education index, which seeks to adjust for varying economic conditions and factors out of a district’s control.
He said he would also like to see relief for local taxpayers but acknowledged that the funding system serves more than 1,000 school districts with varying needs.
“It’s time for us to do some major work on the entire system,” Killian said.
Other appointees are:
• State Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, the Senate Education Committee chairman; state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston; and state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas — all named by Patrick.
• Melissa Martin, a teacher in the Galena Park school district; Elvira Reyna, a former state representative in Mesquite and a current member of the Texas board of professional engineers; and Todd Williams, an education policy adviser to Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings and a trustee for Austin College — all appointed by Abbott.
• State Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, chairman of the House Public Education Committee; state Rep. Ken King, R-Canadian, who serves on the House education committee; and state Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio — all appointed by Straus.
• Keven Ellis, a member of the State Board of Education, appointed by Donna Bahorich, the board chair.
“I’m coming into the commission with an open mind to what everyone has to say,” Killian said. “If we all do that, we can come up with a fix for everybody.”