Acknowledging that an overhaul of the state’s troubled school finance system won’t happen by the end of the legislative session, public school advocates are pushing lawmakers to patch up gaping holes in the system for now.
“The chances of us fixing it all right now are pretty small. Some of these changes … what we’re trying to do is a two-to-three-session fix. I don’t think we’re going to propose a school finance bill that changes your world by next September,” said state Rep. Ken King, R-Canadian, during Tuesday’s House Public Education Committee hearing.
Heeding lawmakers’ call for temporary fixes, school district officials pitched ideas that ranged from increasing funding to prekindergarten and transportation to updating certain parts of the outdated funding formula. The most popular solution from school districts, however, was increasing the basic amount of money that they receive per student.
It is the “quickest and easiest solution … and floats all boats,” said Kevin Brown, superintendent of Alamo Heights school district.
Neither the House and Senate budget proposals increase the basic allotment, which is set at $5,140 per student. However, the House’s budget has an extra $1.5 billion set aside that could be used to pay for an increase in the basic allotment.
Based on how the state’s complicated funding formula is set up, increasing the basic allotment would decrease the amount of money school districts would pay under the system known as Robin Hood. That system requires school districts with high property wealth to give a portion of their revenue back to the state — also called recapture payments — to be redistributed to school districts with lower property wealth. Officials from school districts who are subject to these payments — an estimated 249 districts this year — have complained that the payments they’re making are disproportionately large because many of their students are poor and aren’t native English speakers and need extra services.
The Austin school district pays the most in Robin Hood payments — $406 million expected this school year, nearly a third of the district’s $1.3 billion budget. Nicole Conley Johnson, chief financial officer with the Austin school district, said that if the district were not forced to pay into Robin Hood, the district could drop the tax rate by 35 cents, saving the average home owner $1,400 in property tax per year.
“Recapture has skyrocketed,” Conley Johnson said.
School districts that are subject to Robin Hood payments do not receive funding to provide transportation for students. Conley Johnson said that the school districts even have to pay for highway tolls.
Increasing the basic allotment would also lessen the blow to about 200 school districts that are slated to lose an estimated $300 million in so-called hold-harmless funding; that funding has been given to more than 1,000 school districts since 2006 when the state tried to compensate for a decision to decrease property tax rates by a third. Some rural school districts asked on Tuesday for a continuation of the hold-harmless funding.
Some school district officials also asked that they receive per-student funding for their prekindergarten students who attend school full day. Currently, the state only funds half-day prekindergarten.