Lawmakers provide little extra money for Austin-area school districts

4:53 p.m Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017 Texas News & Politics
The Lago Vista school district’s bus barn is small in comparison to many other other districts’ as a worker walks through the area June 28. About 200 Texas school districts, four of them in Central Texas including Lago Vista, are slated to lose $200 million in state money come Sept. 1, from the Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction program, which was promised to school districts in 2006 to help them maintain the same revenue levels when the Legislature reduced property tax rates by a third.

Despite talk of teacher raises and a bill overwhelmingly approved by the Texas House that would have infused $1.8 billion into Texas schools, lawmakers left Austin this week without moving the needle much on education funding.

At the end of the 29-day special legislative session this week, the Legislature passed a scaled back version of House Bill 21 that will spend $351 million on schools and $212 million to reduce health care costs for retired teachers.

Urban school districts will get little to nothing in additional funding over the next two years under HB 21.

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Instead, lawmakers carved out more generous funding in the bill for charter schools, or privately run public schools, to build new facilities. The bill also creates a commission to study the state’s broken system for funding public schools and make recommendations.

“While approval of a commission … is appreciated, the timing of the study delays any impact for another two fiscal years, requiring school district taxpayers to bear the burden,” said Maritza Gallaga, spokeswoman for the Round Rock school district, which will receive no extra money over the next two years from the state beyond the cost of enrollment growth.

Urban school districts

The Austin school district also won’t receive any additional money even though it will pay $530 million to the state next year as a recapture payment — more than any other school district in the state. Under the school finance system, school districts deemed property-wealthy — even those with mostly low-income students — must make recapture payments to the state to help property-poor school districts.

“When we look at the amount of money that we’re sending to the state and yet we are an urban school system and we’re 60 percent poverty — a lot of students who are English-language learners — we know we need to keep more of our resources in Austin to serve our students,” Austin school Superintendent Paul Cruz said.

Six school districts in Central Texas will receive a combined $8 million in extra funding under HB 21 over the next two years, according to estimates from the Legislative Budget Board. The estimates, which could change as a result of property value and enrollment changes, don’t include $40 million for autism and dyslexia grants in the bill that school districts could also qualify for.

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HB 21 also includes a hardship grant program that will help school districts that are slated to lose millions in Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction. The funding source, which will expire in September, was created in 2005 to compensate school districts for the loss of funding after the Legislature had reduced property tax rates by a third.

Even though it will receive $1 million in grants over the next two years, the Lago Vista school district will still have a 40 percent funding hole left by the ending of the program.

“I’m grateful for any relief, but I want to be cautious to declare this a victory for public education,” Lago Vista Deputy Superintendent Suzy Lofton-Bullis said.

Officials with the Lake Travis school district, which was also receiving funding through the program, said that they doubt they’ll receive the full $4 million the state budget board expects because rising property values could change the amount.

The original version of HB 21 the House passed would have given almost all school districts more funding and reduced recapture payments by $389 million statewide over the next two years.

The Senate pared down HB 21, saying the Legislature needed to fix the inefficiencies in the school finance system before spending large sums of money on public education.

Teachers also get nothing. Although Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick had touted a plan in July to give teachers a pay raise of up to $1,000 depending on classroom experience, lawmakers couldn’t agree on a mechanism to pay for the proposal.

“As far as the governor and lieutenant governor were concerned, I don’t think they ever intended to implement a teacher pay raise or they would have proposed funding for it,” said Clay Robison with the Texas State Teachers Association.

Charter schools, retired teachers

Robison said one positive outcome from special session is that lawmakers partially reversed increases to health insurance costs for retired teachers. The Legislature raised premiums and deductibles for many retired teachers during the regular legislative session earlier this year to avoid a $1 billion shortfall in the Teacher Retirement System.

HB 21 adds $212 million into the system to temper rising costs that were expected to go into effect in January. Deductibles for retired teachers younger than 65 will decrease from $3,000 to $1,500, and premiums for them and their children will drop by $25 a month to $408. Retired teachers older than 65 will see premiums drop from $146 per month to $135.

Even with the extra infusion of money, the retirement system is still expected to face up to a $700 million funding hole next legislative session.

READ: Special session blows up over property taxes

Also under HB 21, charter schools will receive $60 million — about $200 per charter student — in 2019 to build schools, a huge win for the Texas Charter Schools Association, which for the last eight years has been lobbying for state facilities funding.

Among the Austin-area charter schools that will receive the most funds from HB 21 are Harmony Science Academy ($896,000), KIPP Austin Public Schools ($943,000), and Wayside Schools ($501,000).

Charter schools have difficulty borrowing for construction because they don’t have collateral like school districts nor can they levy property taxes. Without state funding for facilities, many charter schools have had to turn to grants and donations, dipped into their operational budgets or retrofitted commercial properties to open campuses.

“An adequate funding system provides not just instruction in the classroom, but the classroom itself,” said David Dunn with the charter schools association. “So (HB 21) is huge for charter schools.”

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