Districts: $1.6 billion school finance bill a good first step


Highlights

House Bill 21 would give a boost to almost all school districts in the state.

School districts and their advocates were concerned that the bill wouldn’t help all school districts.

The bill was left pending in a House committee on Tuesday as it undergoes changes.

A bill that would give a $1.6 billion boost to public education over the next two years received support from school districts and their advocates on Tuesday.

Although top-down reform of the state’s troubled school finance system won’t occur this year, legislators on Monday proposed addressing some of school districts’ most pressing financial problems. House Bill 21 would add $210 per student for more than 95 percent of school districts, for a basic allotment of $5,350 per student. It also would create a $200 million grant program over the next two years for cash-strapped school districts, change funding streams that school districts get to provide bus service and give more money to address dyslexia.

Several school districts and their advocates told the House Public Education Committee on Tuesday that the bill, filed by the committee’s chair Dan Huberty, R-Houston, was a good first step in school finance reform.

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“We fair a little better than where we are today, but we’re still trying to find a permanent solution to this burden that we have of recapture,” said Julie Cowan, an Austin school district trustee whose district encompasses Northwest Austin, referring to the system that redistributes money from districts with high property wealth to those that with low property wealth. “The system is just so, so wrong.”

According to the Legislative Budget Board, the bill would add $20 million to the coffers of the Austin school district over the next two years — small when considering the $536 million the district is expected to pay back to the state under the recapture system next fiscal year.

The Austin school district’s recapture payments are higher than any other school district in the state.

The high recapture payments have led to neglect of Austin school facilities, according to two Austin parents who testified before the committee on Tuesday.

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The average district building is 40 years old and deferred maintenance on facilities is nearing $2 billion, school district officials have said.

Although more people testified in support of the bill than against it, there were concerns that the bill didn’t do enough to support all school districts.

Michael Openshaw, from Collin County, said that the bill seemed too rushed.

Melanie Bush, a Conroe school district trustee, said the bill would eliminate the district’s transportation funding and the increase in the basic allotment for the school district would be used to pay for it.

Chandra Villanueva, senior policy analyst with the Austin-based liberal think tank Center for Public Policy Priorities, also had concerns about how transportation would be funded and recommended that lawmakers first study whether the bill does enough to fund dyslexia services.

The bill will undergo revisions before the committee considers passing it on to the full chamber.



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