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School districts are still a long way from getting relief

School districts may have gotten a favorable ruling in the latest school finance lawsuit, and if it survives appeal it could have far-reaching effects on the current system, but that doesn’t mean that things will get better for them now. If anything, they’re likely to get worse first.

“It’s pretty bleak for next year,” said Tracy Hoke, chief financial officer for the Fort Bend Independent School District, the lead plaintiff in one of six lawsuits filed against the state over funding. “Certainly, there won’t be a lot of new staffing, and employees are very, very tired. Our custodians are cleaning more. Our teachers have larger classes. Our counselors are stretched very thin.”

Hoke and other district leaders say they plan to craft their budgets for 2013-14 similar to current levels of spending, presuming lawmakers will not pour much new money into schools this legislative session, which ends in late May.

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The House Democratic Caucus said its members plan to file a budget amendment this session to restore the $5.4 billion in cuts, while the chairman of the House Republican Caucus, Rep. Brandon Creighton, of Conroe, said acting so soon would be “irresponsible and unproductive.” The state is expected to appeal to the Texas Supreme Court, which could overrule Dietz’s decision.

“To me,” countered Brian Woods, superintendent of Northside ISD in San Antonio, “it’s shortsighted to wait for the Supreme Court, to kick the can down the road another 14 to 16 months when you know there is a problem.”

Woods said he regularly hears complaints that classes are too big and that custodians and technology assistants are too few. His district, like Fort Bend ISD and other fast-growing school systems, should get more money next year because enrollment is rising. Woods, however, said the enrollment growth funding would not cover the cost of opening three new campuses.

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In Houston ISD, the state’s largest district, chief financial officer Ken Huewitt estimates having to fill a $50 million budget shortfall in the upcoming school year. The school board dipped into savings and used one-time federal funds to help balance the budget last year. Jobs may have to be cut, said HISD spokesman Jason Spencer, though it is too soon to know for sure.

“We’re hopeful they’re not going to take any more away from us, but we’re not expecting them to give us anything more,” Huewitt said of lawmakers. “But it’s early.”

I can only imagine what the effect of having to absorb North Forest ISD would have on HISD’s budget. Be that as it may, the Democrats in the House are going to try to force the issue of school finance in this session.

The House Democratic Caucus says it will introduce a measure to restore the $5.4 billion in cuts to this year’s budget by adding it to an emergency spending bill needed to pay for Medicaid. Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer, D-San Antonio, will also try on Monday to convince the House to declare school finance an emergency item and begin work on the matter immediately.

These votes will be just the beginning of a long, drawn out effort to get Republicans to either vote for increased government spending — which will get them in trouble in the 2014 Republican primaries — or get them to vote against public education spending, which will give Democrats an issue in the 2014 general elections.

The Republican leadership recognizes the trap and will do its best to side-step it. The GOP will also use parliamentary procedure to block votes and argue that rewriting school finance laws while there is ongoing litigation is foolish.

Privately, Republicans say they want to delay any action on school finance for as long as possible and are considering stalling tactics. Abbott can do Republican lawmakers a favor and slow-peddle the appeals process to make sure the lawsuit lasts well into 2014. Then Gov. Rick Perry can call a special legislative session after the 2014 primaries and before the 2014 general election.

Such a special session would allow Republican lawmakers to vote for a school finance overhaul that boosts spending after they’ve made it past the notoriously conservative Republican primary voter. They would also solve the school finance problem before Democrats could attack them for not taking care of public schools, one of the most important issues for the general election voter.

As expected, Rep. Martinez-Fischer filed HR 408 yesterday to encourage the Lege to appropriate the money it had cut in 2011 without waiting for the Supreme Court to rule. You can read the press statement from MALC here. In his oddball iconoclastic way, Republican Rep. David Simpson is with the Dems on taking action now. More than half of that $8.8 billion in surplus funds from 2011 that resulted from Comptroller Combs’ gross underestimation of available revenue has now been marked to pay our outstanding Medicaid bills, so a full restoration of public ed money would need to involve the Rainy Day fund and/or current revenues, at least in part. That doesn’t make the debate any less worth having, of course. I don’t expect this to actually happen – the Lege will fund enrollment growth, and there may be some funds restored for things like pre-K – but the more we debate it, the better. We can help schools now, we don’t have to wait. It’s our choice.

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  1. [...] rather than later, is making early session news.  Kuff does a good job of wrapping up the latest, School districts are still a long way from getting relief. As expected, Rep. Martinez-Fischer filed HR 408 yesterday to encourage the Lege to appropriate [...]

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