My hero this week is Graydon Hicks, Fort Davis superintendent of schools.
A West Texas publication published his open letter to Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick raking them over the coals for “the lack of positive legislative action for public schools in Texas” at the most recent session, which adjourned at the end of May without passing a school finance bill.
Hicks is a West Point graduate and an experienced school administrator. He is no-nonsense guy who does not mince words. After detailing the effect of shrinking state financial support for public schools on Fort Davis schools over the past 10 years — combined with an increasing number of unfunded mandates and requirements — Hicks wrote, “How much more do you want to harm our children?
“If your intent is to dissolve public education (and your actions are more than a clear signal of such), then simply go on the record with that statement and remove the state’s authority to further overburden us without financial support. Quit pontificating about bathrooms. Quit hiding your intentions behind righteous statements about school vouchers and choice.”
Hicks accompanied his letter with a chart showing the annually declining amount of state funding available to the Fort Davis school district and the increasing burden on local taxpayers since 2008. That year, state funding amounted to $3.9 million, or 68 percent of the school district’s budget. Local property taxes provided $1.8 million, or 32 percent. In 2017, the state will contribute $378,000 — about one-tenth of its 2008 commitment, or 15 percent of the total budget. Local taxes this year will provide $2.2 million, or 85 percent.
“The Fort Davis ISD has 226 students,” Hicks wrote. “It has no cafeteria, has no bus routes, has dropped our band program, has eliminated (or not filled) 15 staff positions, has cut stipends for extra-curricular activities, has frozen (or reduced) staff pay for one year, has cut extra-curricular programs, has no debt, and has increased our local tax rate to the maximum allowed by the law.
“We have nothing left to cut.”
You can feel Hick’s anger and frustration oozing off the page — and I share it. Public education is one of the basic building blocks of democracy. Public schools are where children learn that everyone in America is not like them — and learn how to get along with those who are not.
Public school classrooms are where children first encounter voting, majority rule and minority rights. Public schools are where children learn to ask questions, evaluate evidence, develop an ear for cant and deceit, and hone the skills that will turn them into informed voters — who are the most important people in a democracy.
The willful neglect of the Texas Legislature, governor and lieutenant governor for our public schools’ funding problems — while they waste time framing legislation that tells people what bathrooms they can use, and forbidding cities from outlawing fracking and plastic bags — is an open scandal.
There is one statement in Hicks’s letter that I think hits the nail on the head. It says political analysts seem to agree that better-educated voters tend to vote Democratic. What better way to suppress those voters than to attack the sources of their education? Responsible voters need to watch these guys like hawks and secure our children’s futures.
We need more public officials like Graydon Hicks — and fewer like Abbott, Patrick, and their cronies in the Texas Legislature.
Taylor is a historian and writer in Fort Davis. This commentary originally appeared in a column in The Big Bend Sentinel. The full column can be found here.