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Cypress-Fairbanks

Many more school districts are feeling the pinch

Not just HISD. Not by a long shot.

For eight-straight years, Cypress-Fairbanks and Conroe ISDs earned the Texas Smart Schools Award, bestowed on school districts with prudent financial practices and high academic achievement.

Now, Cypress-Fairbanks faces a $50 million deficit next school year, and Conroe is projected to face its first deficit in nearly a decade in the next two to four years.

They are not alone.

As the Texas Legislature studies potential changes to the state’s school funding mechanisms, the majority of large Houston-area school districts are facing budget shortfalls they say stem from a lack of state aid. Of the 10 largest Houston-area school districts, all but three approved budgets last summer that included deficits of more than $1 million, according to a Chronicle review. At least nine say they may have to dip into reserve funds within the next three to five years if revenues do not increase.

For some, it is more dire. If nothing changes at the state or local level, district officials say Spring Branch ISD in west Houston will be financially insolvent in three years. Cypress-Fairbanks ISD will use up all its reserve funds in four or five years. Pasadena ISD only avoided a $20 million shortfall for the next school year by passing a tax hike referendum, and multiple districts are considering similar measures to keep their schools afloat.

That pain is felt in large and small districts across the state. North East ISD in San Antonio expects to cut $12 million from its budget next year, likely leading to teacher layoffs, according to the San Antonio Express-News. By 2020, budget documents in Ysleta ISD near El Paso show the district likely will draw down its reserve funds by $12 million. Friendswood ISD, which educates roughly 6,000 students in a sliver of southeast Greater Houston, is facing a $1.9 million budget shortfall next year.

“If we’ve been one of the most efficient districts in the state, and we’re facing this crisis, imagine what other districts are dealing with,” Cy-Fair ISD Chief Financial Officer Stuart Snow said.

[…]

Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who sits on the Commission of Public Education Funding, said districts should expand their revenue streams to include sources other than local property taxes and the state. He pointed to Dallas ISD, which pulls in about $10 million annually from philanthropy. United Airlines also staffed one of DISD’s schools with 25 full-time employees, a partnership Bettencourt said should inspire districts elsewhere.

“It’s not going to be one-size fits all — there are many, many ways to do it right,” Bettencourt said. “At end of the day, we want the education system to get students the best educations they can get for best deals taxpayers can support. But we need to look for all the ways we can do it right.”

First of all, to Paul Bettencourt: You cannot be serious. Philanthropy? Are you kidding me? Dallas ISD’s 2017-2018 general revenue expenditures were over $1.4 billion. That $10 million represents 0.7% of the total. You gonna suggest everyone search their couch cushions, too? Oh, and I don’t know about you, but I’m old enough to remember when two of the biggest philanthropic entities in Houston were Enron and Continental Airlines. Good thing HISD didn’t make itself dependent on them, you know?

This is entirely the Legislature’s responsibility. We are here because they refuse to adequately fund schools, and because they use the increases in property valuations to fund the rest of the budget, while blaming local officials for their shortfalls and tax hikes. As with everything else in this state, nothing will change until the people we elect change. If you live in one of these districts, don’t take your frustrations out on your school board trustees. Take it out on the State Reps and State Senators who skimp on school finance, and the Governor and Lt. Governor who push them to keep doing it.

Bad signs of the times

I don’t even know what to say.

Cypress-Fairbanks ISD will spend $55 million to tighten school security, including installing strategically placed panic buttons on campuses and replacing existing entry windows with bullet-resistant glass – upgrades experts call a necessary but unfortunate sign of the times.

Voters overwhelmingly approved the improvement, which will be completed districtwide by 2020, in a $1.2 billion bond election in May.

“We know that students are No. 1 and our staff is No 1. We’ve got to protect them,” said Roy Sprague, associate superintendent for facilities. “How do you put a price tag on someone’s life?”

Cy-Fair plans to add security vestibules to the front office area of 50 schools to keep unapproved visitors from gaining access, upgrade security cameras and install lockdown buttons and stand-alone emergency phones at all schools – widely considered the best practices in school safety. They’re also moving forward with one of the latest trends since 20 children and 6 adults were shot at Sandy Hook Elementary in December 2012 – installing bullet-resistant glass at the front of schools.

This will make Cy-Fair, Texas’ third largest school system, one of the only districts in the region with bullet-resistant glass, although others are considering a more budget-friendly alternative of laminating existing windows with a coating to slow intruders.

When I was a kid in school in the 70s and 80s, the violent crime rate was a lot higher than it is now. And yet here we are, spending millions on panic buttons and bullet-resistant glass. The story notes that “the recent focus on school safety has led to a proliferation of vendors and products – meaning better, cheaper choices for schools”. I suppose the least we could do is be grateful that we’re getting a good deal for our millions. I’m going to stop here because I’m too depressed to continue, but if you want to keep going then read this dKos post for more.

School superintendents for Early To Rise

From the press release:

(Houston, TX) Today Harris County Superintendents participated in a press conference for the Early to Rise campaign, which is seeking to create a dedicated funding stream to improve the quality of early childhood education through a ballot measure in November. Representing over 400,000 students and their families, the superintendents gave comments on the program. In attendance were Dr. Terry Grier Superintendent of Houston Independent School District, and Dr. Wanda Bamberg Superintendent of Aldine Independent School District. Dr. Mark Henry Superintendent of Cypress Fairbanks Independent School District, Dr. Guy Sconzo Superintendent of Humble Independent School District and Dr. Duncan Klussman of Spring Branch Independent School District, were unable to attend but provided comments.

This campaign has garnered the approval of over 145,000 of our fellow Harris County citizens who have signed a petition to place this important initiative on the November ballot, making it the largest petition drive in the history of Harris County. The Early to Rise campaign will help to raise the standards, training and educational outcomes for young children up to age 5 so that they can begin Kindergarten excited, curious and ready for school.

All representatives felt that making this kind of investment in early childhood education is absolutely critical to the region’s social progress and economic vitality. The first steps toward prosperity begin in the early years and this innovative effort is supported by extensive research.

That’s an impressive number of signatures. I presume they will turn in the petitions next week, to be followed by someone filing a lawsuit, because that’s what I’ve expected all along. As with Sheriff Garcia, it makes sense for school supers to support this. It’s very much in their interest for kids to show up for kinder as prepared for it as possible.

What they’re saying about education

The Chron has a couple of stories focusing on area legislators and their priorities for 2013. There will be many new faces in the Lege and the Senate in this session, so the more we know about what these folks have in mind, the better. This story is about Pearland Rep. Ed Thompson (R, HD29) and Sen. Larry Taylor (R, SD11), who was previously the State Rep. in the Friendswood-anchored HD24. The story covers a lot of ground, but I’m primarily interested in their thoughts on education.

Rep. Ed Thompson

District 29 State Rep. Ed Thompson, R-Pearland, said the state’s growing population is an indicator of economic strength.

“People are coming to Texas, because it’s a pro-business state,” Thompson said. “And our unemployment is dropping. It proves that our economy in Texas is improving.”

Thompson hopes these indicators will translate to a higher budget for the next biennium.

“With the economy doing better, revenues are going up. How much there’s going to be and what we’re going to do with it, that’s the question,” he said. “There will be a lot of discussion going back and filling holes in the budget from our last biennium.”

Taylor is optimistic that a stronger economy in the state will prevent the budget shortfall and resulting issues from last session, but he also said there will be several topics of debate in the session.

“Our economy is doing better than it was, but we are still facing a lot of challenges,” he said. “There are a lot of hard decisions ahead.”

Sen. Larry Taylor

Taylor said his second priority after creating a balanced budget is education reform.

“We are in the process of transforming our educational system for the 21st century,” he said.

Among the changes he hopes to see are increased use of technology and more focus on career training.

“We should be reaching out to people with different talents and gifts,” he said. “Not everyone needs to attend a four-year university. We have people gifted with their hands, and we need to reach out to them and help them get good jobs.”

Thompson also wants schools to offer students more career training options.

“Only about 30 percent of jobs in the U.S. require a four-year degree,” he said. “I think we need to allow them to pursue certifications and technical degrees that will allow them to get a job when they finish high school.”

While funding for education remains a hot topic, Thompson believes the issue cannot be fully examined until the court makes a final ruling on multiple lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the state’s school finance system.

“I think the Legislature will probably take a wait-and-see position pending the decisions on the lawsuits in the courts,” he said.

Superintendent John Kelly from Pearland Independent School District and Superintendent Fred Brent of Alvin Independent School District also expect the Legislature to delay decisions until the court case is resolved.

The Pearland district has joined one of the lawsuits.

“I would be the most surprised person in the state if the system is not declared unconstitutional,” Kelly said.

Kelly has worked in education for the past 30 years and said over that time, state regulations have increased, while funding has decreased – a challenging combination.

“If people are going to keep passing laws that increase the burden on school districts, they need to provide the funding,” he said. “If they don’t have the funding, they need to reduce the regulatory burden.”

Kelly hopes to also see a reduction in the amount of required testing, particularly the end-of-course exams. He recommends reducing the average number from 15 to around five.

“These 15 tests are in addition to the PSAT, SAT, ACT, AP and dual-credit tests the students are taking,” Kelly said. “It’s not like we don’t have enough tests.”

Kelly believes legislators are aware of the problem. “I think there’s a strong push to address this,” he said. “I think there’s momentum in that direction. The Legislature has heard from so many parents and school districts. They have to listen to that.”

Brent said, “Indicators show that state revenue is increasing, however, not at the rate of population growth and increasing student enrollment.

“The state needs to account for the increased student population growth and look for opportunities to help schools, and fast-growth districts, address the changing facility needs and instructional dynamics that come along with increasing student enrollment.”

Brent hopes the Legislature will make education funding a priority. “I do believe there will be opportunities to put money back into the school funding system that was pulled out, denied or supplanted with federal funds during the previous biennium,” he added.

In previous sessions, state dollars were replaced with federal funds, Brent noted. “However, the federal funds have ceased and it is critical that this funding is restored from the state level,” he said.

It’s encouraging to hear Thompson talk about growing the budget. We’ll see what that means in practice, but it sure beats talk about artificially restricting the budget for ideological purposes. As for education, it’s unfortunate that neither Thompson nor Taylor had anything substantive to say. At this point, talking about technology and vocational training is practically a shibboleth. Everyone agrees these are Good Things – as do, I, sincerely – and as far as I can tell there’s no actual opposition to these points. That doesn’t mean that there will necessarily be legislation addressing those issues, nor does it mean there won’t be a debate over how much to spend on tech and vocational training versus other things, but at the end of the day no one is lobbying against them. Hearing that Thompson and Taylor support them tells us nothing.

What we do need to know boils down to two things. How much of the $5.4 billion that was cut from public education last session do you want to see restored, and what do you think about Sen. Patrick’s so-called “school choice” proposal? I will stipulate that the Lege is certain to wait and see what the courts do with the ongoing school finance litigation, and that Sen. Patrick’s proposals are not fully formed yet, and as such I’ll be tolerant of a certain amount of hedging and “wait and see”-ing. But this is where the rubber meets the road, and I want to know what everyone’s general philosophies are, and what they hope to attain or to prevent. Moreover, Thompson is a Parent PAC candidate. The Texas Parent PAC was founded in part to oppose vouchers, and one of their guiding principles is to “ensure that local and state taxes collected to fund preK-12th grade education are used only to fund Texas public schools”. That’s a pretty clear statement. How does Rep. Thompson evaluate Sen. Patrick’s proposal in light of that? It’s important that we know.

A second article about one of the new legislators from Fort Bend does at least partially address these questions.

Rep. Phil Stephenson

For state Rep. Phil Stephenson, freshman Republican for the new District 85, encompassing Rosenberg and Needville, parts of Fort Bend County and Wharton and Jackson counties, education, transportation infrastructure and water are major concerns for him and his constituents.

While public safety, fiscal discipline, economic development and children’s health and education are priorities for seasoned state Sen. Joan Huffman, a Republican representing Senate District 17, comprising Brazoria, Fort Bend and Harris counties.

Having been a trustee on the board of Wharton County Junior College for 16 years until Stephenson took state office, fixing public education from kindergarten through 12th grade is essential.

“We’ve got to do a better job of K-12 education,” he said. “We have to have a properly educated work force.”

He wants to cut the amount of testing under the State of Texas Assessments for Academic Readiness, put more teachers in classrooms, pay them more and bring in more programs for higher education.

A certified public accountant, Stephenson supports restoring some funding to education but not all the $5.3 billion that was cut in the last session. Rather than raise taxes, he said lawmakers must look at areas to cut funding, such as the Texas Education Agency, to spread the money around.

That doesn’t tell us much – how much funding would Rep. Stephenson want to restore, and how would he pay for it? His actual suggestion sounds like funny accounting to me – but it tells us more than the other story did. Favoring any kind of restoration is good to hear, because not everyone favors that.

Finally, this story gives the school district perspective top billing.

Officials from the Cy-Fair Independent School District are hopeful that the new session will result in more funding for education.

“It’s going to be an interesting session, and I think there will be a lot of focus on education,” said Teresa Hull, associate superintendent, governmental relations and communications for CFISD.

Hull believes that state legislators are receptive to the concerns of educators.

“There’s a lot of support across the state from the school districts and the legislators,” she said. “We’re feeling very optimistic about some positive outcomes.”

Hull said the district has several priorities going into the session.

Adopting a school finance system that is adequately funded and equitable is at the top of the district’s wish list – which would include restoring the previous biennium’s funding cuts.

Hull acknowledged, however, that the Legislature may not be able to move forward on the issue until the court makes a final ruling on multiple lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the state’s school finance system.

[…]

Hull said that while the state might put education finance on the back burner, there are other school-related areas that can be addressed.

“The ones I think we’re going to see get the most attention right off the bat will be accountability and testing,” she said.

The district would like to see a reduction in the amount of high-stakes testing, as well as the elimination of the requirement that an end-of-course exam count for 15 percent of a student’s final grade.

Hull said CFISD also wants districts to have more flexibility to manage classroom personnel based on individual school and student needs.

“Let us decide how we want to allocate money into those programs instead of dictating how much and where it will go,” she said.

Hull also hopes to gain more local control for the districts.

This would include the elimination of a standard school start date.

She said that the district plans to oppose legislation that would divert funding from public education, such as voucher programs.

Instead, she prefers policies that expand on public school choice programs that already exist.

“It’s not that we’re opposed to choice,” she said. “But the idea of public funds going to private and parochial schools is concerning. It diverts public funds from public education.”

Cy-Fair is of course in SD07, home of “school choice” bill author Sen. Patrick, whom Hull praises as a “good listener”. We’ll see about that. The story does also include quotes from a legislator:

District 132 State Rep. Bill Callegari, R-Houston, said several educators have communicated concerns about the high number of tests required for students to graduate.

“They have to take 15 or more tests to graduate from high school. A lot of people feel that’s just too much emphasis on testing,” he said. “I’ve talked to teachers, parents and superintendents, and they just think it’s overdone.”

Callegari would also like to see more emphasis on career and technical training.

“These are not menial jobs – they are very important jobs,” he said. “We need to bring a stronger advocacy for career and technical training, making sure we provide the opportunity to get training and not precluding anyone from going to college.”

Again with vocational training, which is to say nothing much, plus some concerns about testing, which is both good and the continuation of a theme. But nothing about restoring funds or vouchers. These are the questions we need answered, and if you see any story in which a legislator is quoted on matters relating to education but these questions aren’t addressed, the article is incomplete. We need to know, and we need to know now before the debating and voting begin.

On comparing school districts

Easier said than done.

The way the state distributes money to school districts, and how much, will be center stage when a trial begins this fall involving more than half of the state’s districts serving the majority of its students, along with Texas charter schools and a group of parents and business leaders asking for a more efficient system. Because of the complexity of school finance, it’s tempting to turn to per-student spending to understand how well — or how poorly — a district is spending its money. But the circumstances of the two districts above illustrate the potential perils of that approach.

“A straight-up comparison of the dollars spent per student in District A and dollars spent per student in District B can be grossly misleading,” said Lori Taylor, a government professor and education researcher at Texas A&M University who has helped the state analyze school district efficiency. Such a comparison, she said, could give people the idea that their district is “wasting their money when it is actually enormously frugal but facing enormous challenges.”

After the state changed the way it finances schools in 2006, most Texas districts do not receive money based on what it costs to educate a student there. Instead, the state bases what districts receive largely on how much they raised through property taxes that year. Intended to help districts transition after the Legislature reduced property taxes, the “target revenue” system has become permanent, though schools are also financed based on a formula that takes into account factors like regional cost-of-living expenses and a district’s number of bilingual, low-income and special-education students. But because of the same political pressures that have already landed school finance in the courts several times since the 1970s — even before target revenue came around — the formula is based on estimates that in many cases have not been updated in almost three decades.

[…]

Last year, the state comptroller’s office released a study analyzing districts’ spending compared with their academic performance, attempting to control for factors like demographics, size and regional costs. Although some education finance experts have questioned whether it adequately did that, it does rank Canyon as more efficient than Sheldon — but neither of them are the outliers they would be based on their per-student spending.

Cypress-Fairbanks, a district in the Houston suburbs that the study regarded as one of the state’s most efficient, achieved that distinction not by design but because of a confluence of circumstances, said Stuart Snow, the district’s associate superintendent of business and financial services.

The district — the third-largest in the state with nearly 104,000 — like Canyon, is among those that receive the least in target revenue financing. That happened because of various factors, said Snow, including the rapid influx of students which he said outpaced property tax values when target revenue levels were set in 2006.

Since then, the district has shaved almost $107 million from its budget to make ends meet, largely through increasing class sizes because it could not hire the staff to keep up with the yearly increase in students. It also saved about $20 million in last year’s budget by reducing the district’s share of employees’ health benefit premiums by about 25 percent.

“It’s been hard, and it’s been a big sacrifice,” Snow said. “It’s hard to measure the impact of that on student learning. Our student performance hasn’t suffered yet, but when you get larger classrooms, at some point in time you expect to see student performance to decline.”

Cy-Fair always comes up in these discussions. It’s one of those places that people have moved to, and still move to, for the schools. That requires them to have schools worth moving for, of course, and the state has been doing its best in recent years to make that a lot harder for them. I keep thinking that sooner or later, the parents will demand better from the Lege. It can’t happen soon enough, that’s for sure. Anyway, file this as another story about the complexities of school finance and the difficulty of finding a solution that works for all, or even most, of the thousands of school districts in Texas.

We have a long history of screwing public schools in this state

I’ve been meaning to post about this Texas Observer story about the current status of school finance, the litigation challenging it, and the story of how we got here. Here’s a little local angle to illustrate one of the many ways in which the system is messed up.

Even one of the state’s most efficient districts, Northwest Houston’s Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District (ISD), is bleeding out slowly after eight years of cuts.

Cy-Fair, the state’s third-largest district, has become a model for doing more with less. It’s consistently a top performer not only in the state comptroller’s rankings of budget efficiency, but also in state test scores. The district hasn’t suffered the massive teacher layoffs some others have, and spokeswoman Kelli Durham says that’s because the district has grown so adept at finding other places to cut. Still, Cy-Fair has scaled back its custodial contracts, cut money for field trips, and skimped on new furniture, trimming $125 million (20 percent of the district’s current budget) in less than a decade. They’ve gotten more waivers than ever before to exceed the state’s 22-student cap in kindergarten-through-4th grade classrooms.

To keep running smoothly through the tight times, Durham says, district leaders cashed in on trust and goodwill they’ve built with their community over time, asking teachers and the whole Cy-Fair community to do more for their schools. But that solution, Durham says, is not sustainable. “In reality, people can’t do double-time for a long period of time.”

Most districts receive more than Cy-Fair’s annual $4,800 per student, but some get even less. The state’s current funding scheme harms them all in different ways. In wealthy districts, parents pay thousands in taxes every month, then watch the state give it to some other school. Their kids sell candy bars and magazines so their school can make ends meet. In poorer districts, students may have to pay to ride the bus to a school that’s more crowded than ever—the sort of environment that makes it easier than ever for students to drop out without being missed.

[…]

In 2005, the Texas Supreme Court ruled the school finance system unconstitutional. With so many districts maxing out their property tax rates, the court ruled that the system amounted to a statewide property tax—outlawed by the state constitution. State lawmakers were ordered to reduce property tax rates, which they did in 2006, but not before muddling the whole system even more.

Rather than update the old formulas used to determine how much money a district should get, the Legislature in 2006 invented a new benchmark— “target revenue”— based on each district’s property tax revenues in 2005. The strategy was meant to protect districts from losing money as the state lowered property taxes. But it created its own grave inequities in funding between districts. Target revenue not only doesn’t provide districts enough money, it makes inequalities worse over time.

In an absurd twist, the target revenue system actually punished the school districts that were most efficient with their money. This is why Cy-Fair ISD finds itself at such a severe disadvantage under the current system. It’s a large district that got by for years by pinching pennies. But now the district’s funding is tied to its 2005 levels of property tax revenue and per-student spending.

“If we had not been so efficient, we would’ve come up with a better target revenue [figure],” says Durham, the Cy-Fair spokesperson.

HISD is largely in the same position. Its property tax rate is below the mandated cap, and it could have made up for at least some of the funding cuts by raising its rate, but as primarily argued by Trustee Harvin Moore, it shouldn’t be in the position of having to subsidize the state’s failure. Once again, we wait for the courts to step in and force the Lege to Do Something. Let’s hope this time the effect is positive.

In the meantime, of course, you can get involved locally and at the Capitol. I’ve already mentioned this, but it’s worth showing again (and again):

Here in Houston, in addition to the community grassroots meeting this evening, you can hear Wayne Pierce, the Executive Director of the Equity Center, and David Thompson, the lead litigator on the lawsuit for which HISD is a plaintiff, give a talk on where things stand and what you can do about it. The talk is Monday, March 5, from 10 to 12 at the United Way of Greater Houston, 50 Waugh Drive (map). Here’s a flyer with the details. You can also team up with the Equity Center as they press forward.

If you can’t attend that, you can attend a family fundraiser for the Texas Parent PAC on Sunday the 4th, from 2 to 4 at the Nature Discovery Center, 7112 Newcastle at Evergreen in Bellaire. More details for that are here. If you want to sign on as a sponsor, see here for more. Get informed, get involved, and get out and vote. And don’t forget who’s on your side and who isn’t.

Cancelling constables

Like Grits, I see this as an opportunity, not a loss.

Budget cuts have led two Harris County constables to cancel their security contracts with several area school districts, leaving the districts scrambling for a fix to cover the end of this school year and beyond.

[…]

Cy-Fair is facing the loss of a 38-deputy contract with Precinct 4 Constable Ron Hickman. Galena Park will lose its existing 11-deputy contract with Precinct 2 Constable Gary Freeman.

In both cases, the districts reimburse the county for 80 percent of the $91,000 cost of a deputy’s salary, benefits and equipment. The full cost of the deputies come out of the constables’ budgets, and the reimbursements from the school districts go into the county coffers.

Hickman’s contract with Cy-Fair, for example, represented a nearly $3.3 million expense on his $29 million budget this year; the district’s cost would have been about $2.7 million.

Harris County Budget Director Dick Raycraft, whose office has worked with constables to implement the county’s deepest spending cuts in years, said the school contracts were the first to go because districts can levy taxes to hire police, unlike, for example, civic clubs.

Or they can say to themselves “That’s a lot of money we could spend on teachers instead”, which would be my preference. Some amount of security is needed, but surely the districts can figure out a way to do it for less. And if along the way that means fewer tickets are written, that’s all to the good.

What school districts may do to respond to the budget cuts

They may raise taxes:

Some school officials also are considering even more unpopular options – increasing property tax rates or eliminating special tax breaks. In some cases, even those moves aren’t expected to raise enough money to plug the worst-case budget holes.

“Right now, nothing is off the table,” said Candace Ahlfinger, a spokeswoman for the Pasadena Independent School District, which could lose between $32 million and $53 million under the initial House budget plan.

[…]

Pasadena ISD – as well as Houston ISD, Spring Branch ISD, Cy-Fair ISD and about 200 other districts – have another way to increase revenues. Their school boards could decide to eliminate a special tax break, known as the optional homestead exemption, they have chosen to give property owners.

They will almost certainly deplete their own “rainy day funds”:

Under the House budget proposal, HISD could lose between $203 million and $348 million – up to a fifth of its budget – according to estimates from a consulting firm. [Chief Financial Officer Melinda] Garrett told the school board that she didn’t expect the House plan to be the final word but said the district had to prepare for the worst.

She said the board could decide to increase the tax rate by a few cents without going to voters because the district hadn’t hit the limit yet. Dipping into the district’s savings accounts – which total about $285 million – is another option, Garrett said.

Given that the cuts that will be made in this biennium will almost certainly have a ripple effect into the next biennium, districts will do this with extreme reluctance. But since the other option is firing a lot of people, what choice do they have?

News from the state Capitol of possible cuts to public education of $9.8 billion has prompted Austin school district officials to look at drastic measures that in previous tight budget years were inconceivable — including school closure, cutting pre-kindergarten programs and cutting hundreds of teaching positions.

In phone calls and letters today to district staff, Superintendent Meria Carstaphen announced that on Monday, she would ask the school board to approve staff changes that include cutting one-third of librarian positions and more than 300 classroom jobs.

The total number of jobs lost if something like the Pitts budget gets passed would be staggering.

In any bill introduced this session, ALL districts will be subject to cuts. When a school finance bill sponsor tries to line up votes, the first question he or she gets is: when do I get to see my printouts? The printouts tell members how their constituents will fare under the bill. This session, all of them lose.

So, how do you line up support for a bill that offers only pain?

“We’ve never had one of these before,” the noted school finance guru Lynn Moak told me. “How are you going to divide the shortfall and get people to vote for it?”

Moak believes that education cuts of $5 billion a year could lead to as many as 100,000 lay-offs across the state. Personnel accounts for 85 percent of school spending.

Do you suppose that 100,000 number will start to follow Rick Perry around? I sure think it should. It is what he wants to have happen.

UPDATE: Some more reactions from Dallas. This person will someday either be hailed as a visionary, or jeered as a fool:

Garland ISD Superintendent Curtis Culwell said his district is not changing plans based on the preliminary state figures.

“I call it the shock-and-awe budget,” Culwell said. “Having said that, I think everyone needs to temper their reaction because it’s not workable, not plausible and not in the best interest of Texas, today or tomorrow.”

I sure hope the Lege reaches the same conclusion.

The Pitts budget

Here it is, and if it is a shock to you, you haven’t been paying attention.

The House’s starting-point budget proposal would provide for a total budget of $156.4 billion in state and federal money, a decrease of $31.1 billion, or nearly 17 percent, from the current budget period.

The budget proposes nearly $5 billion less for public education below the current base funding. It is also $9.8 billion less than what is needed to cover current funding formulas, which includes about 170,000 additional students entering the public school system during the next two-year budget cycle. Pre-kindergarten would be scaled back.

Higher education funding, including student financial aid, would be slashed.

The proposal wouldn’t provide funding for all the people projected to be eligible for the Medicaid program and would slash Medicaid reimbursement rates for health care providers.

Community supervision programs would be cut and a Sugar Land prison unit would be closed. Funding would be eliminated for four community colleges including Brazosport near Lake Jackson.

Thousands of state jobs would be cut.

I’m not sure where to provide a link for this, because HB1 has not been filed yet, according to TLO. If I understand correctly, Pitts’ outline was just give via printouts. Be that as it may, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. One is that this isn’t a bill. Rep. Pitts’ stated objective was to show what the budget would look like if there were no increases in revenue and the Rainy Day Fund were unused. The Senate is working on its own budget outline, which by all reports does assume that the Rainy Day Fund will be tapped for some amount, so it will be different.

Most importantly, now everybody, including all those freshman Republican legislators, know exactly what they’re up against. No more hiding behind vague and meaningless platitudes about “cutting waste” and “smaller government”, because this is what all that means. Now is the time for everyone who will be on the business end of these proposals to make their displeasure known, starting with school districts.

Cypress-Fairbanks ISD Superintendent David Anthony estimated that his district could lose $80 million under the budget blueprint.
“That would significantly impact everything we do in the district,” he said.

The state’s third largest school district has already cut more than $70 million, including some 800 positions, over the past four years.

“We’re very lean already,” Anthony said. “Future cuts will impact the services we provide. We want to maintain quality. If you continue additional pressure and cuts, eventually it breaks.”

Scaling back pre-kindergarten programs would deliver a big low for Houston ISD because about 80 percent of the students come from low-income families, district spokesman Jason Spencer said.

Here’s more on that:

Lawmakers, though, would have to rewrite school-funding formulas because the House leaders’ plan falls $9.8 billion short of obligations to school districts and charter schools.

“They’ve got to pass a major school finance bill with major cuts in it,” said school finance expert Dan Casey, who predicts renewed interest in a lawsuit against the state “if you see cuts of this magnitude and no changes in standards.”

The House budget would push Texas into uncharted territory, he said.

“There isn’t anybody – even the more veteran legislators – that have been through those kinds of reductions,” Casey said.

[…]

Under the House plan, public schools, which teach reading and arithmetic to future workers, would receive no extra money to cover enrollment increases. Nor would districts be given more state funds, as currently required, to offset declining local property values.

“That’s catastrophic for any fast-growing districts, like a Frisco or a Lewisville,” said Casey, a former adviser to the Legislature on school finance who now has a thriving private consulting practice.

The budget would eliminate funds for the nation’s largest experiment in teacher merit pay. Also zeroed out would be the main remedial program created by Texas in 1999, as it required students in certain grades to pass achievement tests to be promoted.

“You’re going to have the same rising standards and less financial help for the support that will make students successful,” Casey said.

Somewhat bizarrely, both Rick Perry and David Dewhurst made claims about protecting the vulnerable and providing a “world-class education” in their inauguration speeches. Neither of those things is remotely possible under the Pitts outline. The question is what happens next. The answer, as always, is to make your voices heard. I know of one group in HD134, organizing via Facebook, that’s meeting to “petition support from our newly elected representative, Sarah Davis, to support funding for public education”. I have no idea what effect that or any other such effort may have, but if you don’t make it clear to your Reps and Senators that you didn’t vote for this and will vote against anyone who supports these kinds of cuts, they’ll have no reason to think there’s any problem with doing so. We have 132 days to make sure they know. Reactions from various Democratic lawmakers are beneath the fold. The Trib has more on the budget in general, while Grits, Postcards, and the Trib again discuss the criminal justice impact of the outline, and the LBB webpage now has some budget docs.

(more…)

School districts feeling the crunch

The state’s budget problems, which are caused to some degree by the economic slowdown, aren’t just problems for the state. They’re local problems as well, and the entities that have been hardest hit are those that had been given short shrift by the state long before the economy went into a nose dive. I’m referring to school districts, which are feeling all kinds of pain right now, and which have even bleaker short term forecasts.

[B]y far, school districts have reported taking a much harder hit from the economic downturn than have municipalities. For instance, Cy-Fair is predicting a $10 million shortfall in its 2010-11 budget. School authorities say their fiscal problems are exacerbated by funding limits and state regulations.

“Every district has a complaint on the way their funding is figured. It all boils down to that we’re not getting enough from the state,” said Robert Robertson, spokesman for Klein ISD.

Texas schools get their income from allotments paid by the state for each student as well as property taxes that the district levies.

Despite increasing expenses, state funding has been frozen at the level that districts received three years ago — with the only exception being a small shot of stimulus money that was dedicated mostly to teacher raises and programs to help disadvantaged students.

At the same time, lawmakers have capped the property tax rate that districts can levy to cover their operating expenses at $1.04 per $100 valuation. It can be raised by an additional 13 cents, but only if approved by voters in a special tax election.

You know, I’m thinking there’s an opportunity for a Democratic candidate for Governor to win some votes in these suburban, Republican-leaning parts of the state by promising to work hard to find real solutions to these problems. Some of that may include saying words or phrases that might be considered no-nos in Texas elections, and that’s a scary thing to do. But it should be clear to most folks what kind of path we’re on right now, and it should be clear to most folks that without a change in the Governor’s mansion, that path isn’t going to change, either. Certainly, unless someone makes the case for doing things differently, we’ll keep on doing what we’ve been doing.

Today the HCDE, tomorrow the world!

Remember those Cy-Fair school board candidates I mentioned last week? Turns out they each have Facebook groups supporting their candidacies. A brief look at them reveals a couple of interesting things. One is that spelling, or at least spell-checking, is not a high priority. From Willie Wright’s group’s description:

The incumbent has also voted in recent years to raise property taxes in Cy-Fair and the incumbent also supported the building of the collosal Berry Center, also known as the Cy-Fair Taj Mahal or Ceasar’s Palace.

And from Bill Morris’ group’s description:

Additionally, as a GOP Precinct Chairman, Bill knows the importance of being a Conservtaive Republican voter, unlike the incumbent in this race who voted in the 2008 Democrat Primary.

Does the TAKS test include a spelling component? I’m just asking.

And two, these groups were both created by our old friend HCDE Trustee Michael Wolfe. Good to know Wolfe’s famous attention to detail isn’t just limited to his work with the Department of Education. Now, I don’t know what Wolfe’s involvement in these races is – it may be nothing more than setting up Facebook groups as part of the local GOP’s social media outreach program. But I do know that Wolfe tried to increase his influence on the HCDE by supporting a couple of far-right candidates in the 2008 primary; they won that battle, knocking off more moderate GOP incumbents, but thankfully lost in November to the much more qualified Debra Kerner and Jim Henley. And I do know that one of those Wolfe-backed candidates, Stan Stanart, is also in these groups and has apparently announced his intention to run for the to-be-open position of Harris County Clerk. (Former State Rep. and HCDP Chair Sue Schechter has announced her interest on the Democratic side.) Finally, I do know that I’d prefer less Michael Wolfe in my government, not more. So if you live in the Cy-Fair ISD, please be aware of who’s running for these offices, and please vote accordingly. That goes for the Alief ISD as well, about which I’ll have more to say shortly. Thanks.

Where conservative governance gets incubated

This story about area school board elections is both a revealing look at the state of the modern conservative philosophy of how to govern, as well as a stark reminder of why these obscure little elections really do matter.

In Cy-Fair ISD, where six people are running for two seats, challengers are campaigning to protect an optional 20 percent homestead exemption that administrators suggested slashing earlier this year to stave off spending cuts. While candidates say recession-related frustration drove them to advocate for relief for home and business owners, few have specific plans on how to both lower taxes and improve the quality of education.

“I wish I had an answer for that. If I did, I’d be a real politician,” said Cy-Fair candidate Willie Wright, a real estate agent who said she’s running to help build a conservative consensus on the board. “There’s some of us that just have recognized that we need to be fiscally responsible.”

Another challenger, Bill Morris, wrote in a school district candidate questionnaire that Cy-Fair needs to keep its homestead exemption and “encourage morality-based principles in our classrooms.”

Remember, this is the same Cy-Fair that had to lay off staff and drastically reduce bus service because of that property tax exemption. But don’t worry, the magic pixie dust of the free market will rescue them, or something. You Cy-Fair parents who say you want better bus service, I hope you’re paying attention to this.

And just to demonstrate that there’s no idea so bad that nobody will want to copy it:

Backed by residents of the wealthy Royal Oaks neighborhood, the Improve Alief Schools Political Action Committee is pushing for tax relief and academic improvements. At question is the size of budget cuts that would be needed to offset an extra homestead exemption.

Administrators have said the tax break could cost teachers jobs, while the three PAC-backed candidates say it can be done without staff cuts.

Marilyn Swick, one of the conservative challengers in Alief, argued that a tax break could be granted without cutting teachers. When pressed, she said she couldn’t yet provides specific examples of what she would propose cutting.

“People have blown this out of proportion with their own scare tactics,” she said. “I’m running to improve academic standards. I’m not even here to talk about (tax relief).”

In other words, cut the taxes first and ask the questions later. I don’t think there’s anything to add to that.

Cy-Fair parents want their school buses

Parents in the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District react with dismay to cutbacks in school bus service.

“I implore you, please reconsider these routes,” said parent Rachel Gerhardt. “Some are hazardous. My main concern is that my child gets to and from school safely. I don’t want to just hope. I want to know they got there safely.”

Cy-Fair said the state does pay for the buses to continue along routes the state considers dangerous — and they need that money.

“This is a service which we (had) offered for several decades,” said Kelli Durham, an assistant superintended with the Cy-Fair ISD.
“This is a valuable service; however, when you are forced to cut $14.2 million in this year’s budget — we cut $27 million from last year’s budget and $15 million from the prior years due to a lack of state funding.”

The state will continue to cover transportation costs on what are considered dangerous routes, but budget constraints lead to other cuts.

According to school board officials, the board had to make up a budget deficit of more than $14 million because the public wanted services cut instead of losing the 20 percent homestead exemption on property taxes.

I wonder about that. Is it really the case that public sentiment favored keeping that tax cut at all costs, or was it just a sufficiently vocal and motivated minority, plus an easily-cowed board of trustees, that led to this? If it is the latter, that will serve as an object lesson in the importance of organization and paying attention. And, hopefully, the impetus for some candidates who’ll do a better job of doing what the majority wants, not just the sufficiently vocal, to run in the next election.

“(We) respectfully request reinstating bus service or offering an alternative such as bus service for a fee,” said parent Julie Long.

Long said her two elementary-age sons attend Adam Elementary, which is more than a mile from their home.

“Less than 25 percent of the route offers sidewalks,” Long said. “The entire portion between Fallbrook and our neighborhood is pretty dangerous. It’s a two-lane, winding road with no sidewalks whatsoever.”

I note this since the question of sidewalks came up in that previous post. More than a mile is a pretty long distance for an elemetary school student to walk, and without sidewalks, it really is dangerous. Too bad that wasn’t taken into account before.

You don’t get what you don’t pay for

School buses. Who needs ’em?

Homeowners in the Cypress-Fairbanks school district are able to keep their special tax break this year, but now thousands of students are left without school bus rides.

To make a dent in a $14 million deficit, Cy-Fair will no longer provide bus service to most students who live within two miles of their school. The district also is cutting late bus service, which took home students who stay after school for sports, tutoring, band, detention or club meetings.

“It’s putting a lot of people in a bind,” said Cy-Fair parent Angela LeBlanc. She and her husband both have work schedules that prevent them from driving their second-grade daughter to school, which starts at 8:45 a.m.

Cy-Fair Superintendent David Anthony announced the cuts in busing in late July after the school board, under heavy lobbying by homeowners and lawmakers, rejected his proposal to revoke or reduce the district’s 20 percent optional homestead exemption. Anthony said removing the tax discount would have netted the district an extra $45 million this year.

The transportation cuts will make up a small portion of the difference. Cy-Fair spokeswoman Kelli Durham said stopping the two-mile bus runs will save about $2 million. The move will affect some 11,000 children, or 11 percent of the student body.

The district had previously cut 75 jobs to make up part of the deficit. I’m thinking the district’s “great reputation” that Superintendent Anthony was worried about will also take a hit as a result of this.

The Cy-Fair school board did not sign off specifically on the bus changes but voted in late June to give Anthony permission to cut $14.2 million from the budget.

Cy-Fair school board member Larry Youngblood said he supports the cuts in busing, rather than raising taxes. He recalled a call from a taxpayer who said: “Do whatever you have to do. We’ll get used to it. But don’t raise my taxes.”

You have to admire the sense of entitlement, if not the priorities, of that caller. Clearly, he or she had en effect on Youngblood’s actions. Of course, if the only people calling in were like this person, and not those who were going to be adversely affected by this decision, it’s easy to see why it had that effect. How many other school districts that give that extra exemption will see the same dynamic?

Teachers also are worried about the cuts in busing, said Frances Smith, who is president of the Texas State Teachers Association in Cy-Fair. She said she’s not sure how students who don’t have rides or can’t afford cars will be able to make up tests after school or participate in clubs.

“The students that don’t have rides, they’re going to be at a disadvantage,” she said.

I hope somebody keeps track of all the Cy-Fairs out there and their test scores. Maybe if their students’ performance declines noticeably, the residents will demand a reassessment of this decision. Or maybe it’ll turn out that the reason people moved to places like Cy-Fair was really the property taxes, and not the quality of the schools. At least we’ll finally know for sure.

As goes Cy-Fair, so goes Texas

Earlier this month, I noted that the Cy-Fair ISD was considering the repeal of an optional homestead exemption so it could pay for salaries and services it needed for the schools. They backed off after residents protested, choosing instead of lay off 75 employees. Cy-Fair isn’t the only district that allows this optional exemption, and it’s not the only one that is now trying to do away with it to meet its budgetary needs.

The local-option homestead exemption — as high as 20 percent of the residential property value on top of the standard $15,000 homestead allowance — was granted in more than 200 school districts during more prosperous times.

Districts can recoup half the amount of the extra exemption from the state, but only if the state has enough money left over after paying its other school-finance obligations. Some years they get nothing.

Texas Education Agency Commissioner Robert Scott told the districts last month that the state may not be able to afford future refunds.

“School districts should not expect automatic continued adjustment and should plan accordingly,” Scott wrote in a letter to the districts. “There is no certainty that a surplus of appropriations will exist in future years, and even less likelihood in the first year of a state fiscal biennium.”

This is the fruit of our bizarre and shortsighted obsession with tax cutting. We demand refunds in good times and we refuse to give back in bad times, and all the while the services we need wither and decay. I keep wondering at what point we’ll figure out that we can’t get something for nothing, and that if we really do want things like good schools and roads and hospitals and whatnot we need to pay for them.

The Center for Public Policy Priorities, an Austin-based nonprofit which advocates for needy Texans, opposes the optional homestead exemption. The group says the exemption’s benefit is concentrated in the highest income levels, with more than 43 percent of the benefit going to the 20 percent of households whose annual income exceeds $117,899.

“The regular homestead exemption of $15,000 gives a bigger exemption to those households that need it most,” said Dick Lavine, the center’s senior fiscal analyst. “Also, it seems like regional competition. The way this panned out, some areas of the state are getting a little more than others.”

Lavine said it also costs the state; this year the value lost to the exemption is projected at $428.2 million, according to the state comptroller’s office.

That’s part of the problem with basing your tax structure on something like property taxes. The Express News, which documented how the lion’s share of lower home appraisals via tax protests went to the wealthiest homeowners, demonstrates another flaw. The system we have serves a few people very well, and the rest of us not nearly so well. Simply restoring some balance would solve an awful lot of problems, but needless to say that’s much easier said than done.

Lower taxes, less revenue, lower quality

Apparently, you need tax revenues to pay for needed services, and when the demand for those services outstrips the growth of the tax revenues, you either have to find a way to raise more revenue, or you have to cut the services that you want and need. You can’t finance everything you want on a low tax rate forever. Who knew?

Today, the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District — one of the fastest-growing districts in the nation — is at a crossroads. How long can it keep property taxes low and the quality of its education high?

Superintendent David Anthony has sounded the alarm, saying the suburban district is struggling to stay financially afloat and remain competitive for the best teachers.

To steady the district’s finances in coming years, Anthony proposed last month slashing the district’s optional homestead exemption — a special tax break that saves homeowners several hundred dollars a year but costs the district an estimated $45 million. The school board rejected Anthony’s idea after homeowners and state lawmakers protested.

[…]

The Cy-Fair school board agreed last month to eliminate 75 jobs and authorized more budget cuts. Anthony said the budget must be reduced by $14.2 million, but he hasn’t said how he’ll do it beyond cutting those 75 jobs.

“I am not naive enough to believe that these changes will be painless,” Anthony wrote in a June 26 memo to the community, “but the ultimate goal is to maintain our district’s great reputation, while ensuring that we are solvent and viable.”

Last year, the cash-strapped district cut roughly 450 positions, mostly through attrition; about 10 employees got pink slips, while others were reassigned to other jobs or new schools. The losses pushed up class sizes in middle and high schools and cut the number of counselors, librarians and teaching aides, said district spokeswoman Kelli Durham. Anthony declined interview requests last week.

[…]

Over the years, some Cy-Fair businesses have questioned the fairness of the tax break given to homeowners, said Darcy Mingoia, the former president of the Cy-Fair Houston Chamber of Commerce. But the upside of the exemption, she said, is it attracts more residents and, thus, more customers.

Mingoia, who co-chaired the political action committee supporting Cy-Fair’s 2007 bond referendum, said the future of the optional homestead exemption might hinge on whether student achievement plummets after the budget cuts.

“Will that,” she asked, “be the catalyst to have the school board look at it again?”

Depends. Do the residents in Cy-Fair care more about a few hundred bucks on their property tax bills, or the quality of the education their children receive? Seems like a pretty straightforward choice to me. I always hear that people move to the suburbs for the better schools. Now that Cy-Fair has some tough decisions to make, will they choose to maintain the schools that supposedly drew them there in the first place? Or will people leave it in favor of the next Cy-Fair, wherever that may be? Greg has more.

HISD to broadcast some meetings

This is a good first step.

Saying they want to be more transparent, Houston Independent School District trustees agreed Thursday to broadcast their once-monthly general meetings on the district’s cable access station, which runs 24 hours a day.

Trustees, though, are refusing for now to broadcast their less formal public meetings, where much of the debate and discussion — and even some votes — take place.

“If we televise everything we do as board members, then we would crowd out other programming,” Trustee Harvin Moore said. “Where would we stop? We have workshops. We have committee meetings. You have to draw a line at some point.”

Trustees also decided against airing the portion of their general meetings when citizens can address the board about any topic. Some trustees said they worried about parents violating children’s privacy.

HISD, which televised its meetings decades ago, now plans to take a more restrictive approach than some other local governments. The Houston City Council, for example, airs its general meetings, plus public comment periods and some committee meetings.

The Cypress-Fairbanks school board has been televising its meetings for more than a decade. Like HISD, trustees there have one meeting to discuss agenda items in detail, followed by a meeting where they cast votes.

Cy-Fair also has been posting videos of board meetings on the school district’s Web site for six years, and it now streams them live online, too.

HISD spokesman Norm Uhl said the district is researching ways to broadcast the meetings online.

I think the technology of that is pretty well understood at this point, so I hope what that means is they’re looking for a way to do it given current staffing and funding levels. Live-streaming and posting videos is the obvious answer to the concern about hogging the public access channel. The rest is just details. I applaud HISD for taking this step, but let’s not stop there. More like Cy-Fair and Houston City Council, please.