The Houston Independent School District was charter friendly long before other school districts were, mainly due to the influence of then-Superintendent Rod Paige. The nationally known Knowledge is Power Program, for instance, probably would not exist on the scale and scope it does today if Paige hadn’t allowed the original campus to co-locate in HISD’s existing school district facilities.
Ironically, it is the facilities portion of Senate Bill 2 that have become the sticking for HISD. Under the bill, school districts with “unused” or “underutilized” would be required to notify the Texas Education Agency, which would then post excess property online for charter schools to lease or acquire at the cost of $1.
For HISD, turning over unused facilities would be financially disastrous, district leaders say. Surrounded on all sides by aging campuses, the state’s largest school district has turned to selling off excess property to fund the construction and reconstruction of schools around the district. Last year’s $1.6 billion bond package, in fact, pledged to replace Condit Elementary School and The High School for Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice through sale of surplus property.
When The High School for Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice sits on land near the prime intersection of Memorial and Shepherd drives, it’s not just an inconvenience to give up the land to others. It’s probably a $35 million loss.
Spokesman Jason Spencer notes HISD has recouped $32.4 million in taxpayer money over the last five years through the sale of property, money that is being reinvested in Houston schools. At this moment, HISD still has 10 properties posted for sale, with proceeds earmarked for facility needs.
“Any legislation that would hinder HISD’s ability to continue recouping taxpayer assets by selling property and reinvesting those tax dollars back into Houston schools would add to the financial burden on HISD taxpayers at a time when the Texas Legislature is failing to meet its constitutional obligation to adequately fund public schools,” Spencer said in a rather stiff but clearly unhappy statement from the school district. “It is HISD’s position that the state does not have legal authority to require a locally controlled independent school district to essentially give away facilities that were approved by voters and funded by local taxpayers.”
That’s a pretty strong critique. It was also apparently an effective one, because according to the Trib, Sen. Patrick proposed an amendment that would raise the cost to market value, which seems like a reasonable alternative to me. It may make the charter schools unhappy, however, since one of their main complaints is that they don’t have the same capacity to raise money for capital expenditures as school districts, since they can’t float bonds. I suspect that will be addressed in some other fashion, so it probably isn’t an obstacle. We’ll see what the bill looks like when it emerges from committee. See also the TSTA, which observes that the reason why “some new buildings, particularly in fast-growth districts are empty [is] because school districts couldn’t afford to staff and open them” after the $5.4 billion budget cut from last session that Patrick continues to support.
One more thing, via the Statesman.
At the onset of the hearing, Patrick said he expected opposition from school district officials, but warned that his primary concern was for students and parents who want an alternative to traditional public schools.
“I want you to understand that when you testify, you’re not testifying against a bill,” Patrick said. “You’re testifying against 100,000 families who are are on the wait list who are desperate for their children to have choice.”
Sen. Patrick has made some variation on that statement throughout this process, to emphasize just how much he cares about the children, and how those who oppose him are standing in the way of his coming to their rescue. It’s all very touching, but you know what else many parents – a lot more than 100,000 of them in this state – are desperate for? Affordable health care, and access to it. To say the least, Sen. Patrick is notably less concerned about that. If he were concerned about it, he’d be out there leading the charge to expand Medicaid, since children are among the main beneficiaries of Medicaid. I guess there’s only so much concern one can have about the welfare of children before one starts to get worn out, or something. Suffice it to say that Sen. Patrick’s pleadings don’t impress me very much.