GRATITUDE: PART 2

My last blog entry chronicled some of the many people who did extraordinary work here in Pearland during and after the most devastating flood in U.S. history.  Now, I’ll share the personal perspective of just one family.  The father is a Technology Technician in our school district.  The Mom is an elementary teacher in our district.  She just wrote me the following email:

Dr. Kelly,

 I just want to take a short minute of your time and let you know what the Dawson students and staff did for my family’s neighborhood.

 Last Friday a group of students and staff from Dawson came to our house to help. My husband, Tim, works at Dawson in technology. He had received a call Thursday saying that they were coming. Tim told them that we already had a crew from our church coming, but he was told the Dawson crew was coming anyway. 🙂  One of the coaches arrived around 8:00 am and did not leave until my husband left around 7:00 pm. I think there were around 6 or 7 others from Dawson who came to help, including students. Tim said one student came in, walked over to him, said, “Thank you for being a teacher,” picked up a trash bag and started working. There are no words to describe what either of us were feeling at that moment. Absolutely no words. As I am typing this, I am still getting teary eyed thinking about it.

 Later that morning, as we were walking in and out of the house carrying things, I saw a school bus pull up and out came a bus load of students. I didn’t know who they were, but Tim knew as he looked at them that they were Dawson students. The students walked toward our house and asked if they could help. At that point in time there was no more room for any more help in our house, so I asked if they wouldn’t mind helping others down our street. They all shook their heads and started walking, stopping as they came to a house. Small group by small group these students disappeared into houses and were seen carrying trash bags out, carrying possessions and furniture out. They were seen honestly working up a sweat. And not a single one of them looked like they minded a little sweat. 🙂

 I wish I had been able to take pictures of the faces of the house owner’s. It is hard to explain their expressions. A few words that I can think of are amazed, grateful, overwhelmed and astonished. To see their smiles made my heart sing.

 Later that afternoon as I was driving to run an errand, I passed a church parking lot and saw not only the school bus that dropped the students off on my street, but THREE school buses parked in that parking lot. THREE buses! I was late told that there were about 150 students and staff that came out to help.

 I wish I could tell you in words what I feel when I think about those kids and adults from Dawson. To know that, yes, a few of them knew Tim, but the majority of the kids were there because they knew that their community needed help is indescribable. To know that these students took time away from their families to help total strangers because they were in need, there are no words.

 As an employee of this district, it makes me so very proud to be a part of this school community. To see, in action, what these students are being brought up to be and to do. Not only to be academically successful, but to be a successful citizen and member of their own community. To be a caring and compassionate adult and human being. To see that if there is a need that they can act on it. As a member of this community, on the receiving end of this help, it makes me cry with gratitude. It makes me want to take pictures and videos and post them on all the social media that I can to show that THIS is what the world should be.  To show that THESE students are making a difference in the world. To let everyone know that there is hope and faith in the younger generations and that what we need to do is to support them and tell them how much we appreciate them and how proud of them we are!

 Thank you letting me share with you this amazing experience we had with the students from Dawson High School. Thank you for letting me take a minute to give them a huge shout out and let you know just how awesome the staff and students from Dawson are!!

 DruEllen Duncan, Fourth Grade Teacher, Massey Ranch Elementary School

From Dr. Kelly:  In the midst and in the aftermath of the storm, stories like this abound in Pearland.  For example, the same outreach efforts were made by the PHS students, led by teachers and coaches, who helped man the shelter at that school in addition to work in the community.  We are blessed to live here in Pearland!

GRATITUDE: IN THE WAKE OF THE STORM!

In the wake of flood devastation described as the worst in U.S. history, I join many others in expressing gratitude for the sacrificial work of so many right here in Pearland.  Specifically:

  • Our teachers, administrators and staff:  We re-opened our schools to our children on Tuesday (which was earlier than all surrounding districts). Believe it or not, we had a higher attendance rate for our employees than on the same post-Labor Day in 2016! As I visited with teachers and staff, their “can do”, sacrificial approach shines. If early tabulations are correct, about 10% of our staff were at least temporarily displaced during the storm. About 4% remain displaced now. 14% are themselves hosting displaced folks from Pearland and elsewhere. Yet, as I asked them about these things, the almost universal response was to focus instead on the needs of the children and their co-workers. Over the past two weeks, I’ve heard story after story of those who were flooded – and then went out to help their neighbors!
  • Our maintenance, custodial, bus drivers, and food service personnel: In the midst of the storm, those critical personnel were inside our schools cleaning, removing any water, transporting evacuees, and feeding city critical personnel workers and needy flood victims. Some of our people came from flooded homes and streets and yet were feeding/cleaning the massive areas of the PHS shelter on a daily basis.
  • Our local churches and civic organizations:  Everywhere one went, there were folks helping our families dig out, find food, etc.  Pearland’s faith in God and love for neighbor was made manifest.  For example, Crosspoint Church operated a shelter until the very hour when flood waters prevented access.  And now they will welcome Samaritan’s Purse to headquarter local work here.  Another example:  Crossroads Church set up a massive food and materials distribution voluntarily manned by a small army of their congregation.  They were in force after church on Sunday.  There are too many other churches and civic organizations (like the Lion’s Club, Neighborhood Center, etc.) to mention.
  • Local businesses: Again, the list is too long. For example, Grazia Restaurant delivered tons of food to those in shelters, to our police, and to others. As I write this, HEB is delivering a massive amount of supplies to our Board Room for distribution to students, families, and staff. Special thanks also goes to the “Pearland Recovery Assistance Team” organized by Buck Stevens and Rick Torrison.
  • Our students:  Hundreds of students volunteered in the midst of the storm.  They manned the shelter at Pearland High School.  They removed sheet rock and possessions from flooded houses.  They took care of pets displaced by the storm.  The list goes on and on.  I also appreciate the coaches and teachers who led them.
  • Our parents:  Countless numbers of parents contributed by manning our shelter (or at other locations), collecting clothes and food, removing sheet rock, and many other things.  This week, our combined PTAs operated their “swap shop” to hand out clothing to those in need.
  • Our city/county/government: Whole areas of Pearland avoided the worst because of years of planning with regard to roads, water detention areas, utilities, etc.  While no man made system can ever overcome the worst flooding in U.S. history, Pearland did better than the areas north, south, east, and west of us.  On top of that our first responders were everywhere.  When their original Recreation Center emergency location was compromised by flooding, the Pearland police set up operations in a part of our high school – and SLEPT there between shifts!  In turn, grateful people brought them food, supplies, and even underwear!  Later I had the opportunity to attend a city council meeting during this crisis.  Among others who spoke was our great City Manager Clay Pearson. As he described the work of others, he was overcome with emotion and thankfulness.
  • Pearland ISD Leaders:  There were many.  But I’d like to single out those who were just about everywhere every day during and after the storm.  They included Keith Ordeneaux (who both oversees our facilities and is a city council member), Larry Berger (Our Maintenance Director – AKA Captain America), Matt Cline (AKA Iron Man, who did a little of just about everything), Kim Hocott (our Executive Director of Communications), Raul Cruz (our Transportation Director) and Dorothy Simpson (Food Services Director).  We also witnessed our School Board members setting the example by manning our shelter, delivering food, etc.
  • What is the net result of all these relief efforts?    No one can adequately quantify what’s been done and what remains to be done.  But one key statistic relevant to school operations is this:  On our first day back (Tuesday, September 5) we had a student attendance rate of 97%.  This is slightly above the annual average attendance rate for our school district.  Amazing.  Uplifting.
  • I’ll share just one story that illustrates many things: Last Friday night, the number of evacuees in our PHS shelter began to dwindle as folks made their way home, or to relatives or elsewhere. At perhaps 7 p.m., a young woman approached the registration table. She was deaf and only able to communicate through typing messages on her phone. Mrs. Polly Breaux Gandy, a Pearland ISD parent, was manning the registration area. She began exchanging messages with the woman. It turned out she lived with two other disabled adults and two children. They were very hungry. The folks manning the food service area gave her a big plate and she devoured it in about 5 minutes. As she got up from the table, Mrs. Gandy noticed the woman winced and limped. After more text exchanges, she revealed she had hurt her leg. In turn, that prompted notification of the volunteer medical staff located a hallway away. They came to her with a wheelchair, took her to the medical area, and examined her at length, exchanging messages on a notepad. Meanwhile the volunteers in the food area piled up boxes of food and other items for placement in the woman’s car. Mrs. Gandy then followed the woman home and determined further needs. About an hour later, she reported the situation to another volunteer (Tanya Dawson – our Pearland ISD attorney – performing various duties night after night in the shelter). The next day, Tanya visited the house and delivered a mountain of more food. The children were particularly delighted – and all were most grateful. School personnel, parents, community members, volunteer medical staff, our school attorney, those who donated food/clothing/paper plates, etc. ALL contributed to what would have otherwise been a terrible situation for nearby flood victims. This is one of a thousand stories in Pearland, Texas.

I am filled with profound GRATITUDE to God and to those who acted in the midst of the storm – and in its wake thereafter. Truly, it is a blessing to live in Pearland!

TAXING OUR TAXES!

State requirements for published tax notices force public school boards to make misleading pronouncements about available revenue. What’s left out of those notices is the state’s continuing “tax” on our local taxes!

Last week, when adopting our tax rate for 2017-18, the state’s required language for that adoption pronounces that our 2017-18 effective tax rate is effectively an 8.83 percent increase over the previous year.

But here are the facts:

  • The 8.83 percent referred to in the required language represents the growth of our local tax base, not a change in the actual tax rate.
  • Our actual tax rate is exactly the same as it was last year. In fact, that tax rate has not increased over the past decade. Thus, if a residence or business does not increase in value/appraisal, the same amount will be assessed this year as last.
  • Here’s the main point: As the local tax base grows, the state lowers the amount of school funding it provides. Required tax notices omit that extremely important fact! 
  • Pearland ISD will receive an estimated $3 million less in state funding this year as compared to last year.
  • Thus portraying our district as wallowing in 8 percent more revenue is highly misleading. That tax notice language comes from the same legislature using the increase in our local revenue to pay THEIR school funding bills!
  • Essentially, the state is taxing our local taxes!

This is less like Robin Hood and more like the Sheriff of Nottingham: Taxing  the locals to build the king’s coffers!

What is the net effect on these developments for Pearland ISD?

  • We predict a 2 percent increase in our expenditures for 2017-18. This is only possible because we get to “keep” about 5/8 of the revenue generated by the growth in our tax base. (The rest is offset by the drop in state revenue.)
  • We will also continue to earn revenue credit for increases in student enrollment.  We predict we’ll gain 300 to 400 students this coming year.
  • About 60 percent of our employees are enrolled in the TRS Health Care plan.  Premium spikes for those who have their families on that plan are greater than our forecasted 2 percent pay raise for 2017-18.
  • That 2 percent raise to employees will require us to dip into our carefully guarded savings for about half of it. Obviously, it is not wise to dip into savings for recurring costs over the long haul. This must be a temporary fix.
  • With yearly enrollment growth we need additional personnel. This is only partially compensated by the state revenue owed for such students.
  • Even though we just passed (November 2016) a $220 million bond election, the tax rate for 2017-18 will NOT be raised.  However, 2 years from now we do expect an increase geared toward  meeting those debt payments.
  • Meanwhile, in May of this year Texas Smart Schools again pronounces us a 5 Star District for financial efficiency and student performance.
  • A special session is now slated for July in which the legislature will consider an unfunded teacher raise mandate – and a cap on school property taxes.  Thus, the state appears poised to increase our expenses while hampering our ability to pay for their mandates.

Blood out of a turnip. Bricks without straw.

Will Rogers said, “Be grateful we’re not getting all the government we’re paying for.”

Well, we’re getting all the regulatory government we can handle. But the money to pay for it is flowing in the wrong direction!

 

TEXAS SENATE GETS “F” FOR SCHOOL FUNDING REFORM

Perhaps the best and most recent example of Texas legislature buck-passing is the newly approved bill forcing school districts to outfit new buses with seat belts. In 2007, they passed a similar law but with the provision that districts must comply only if the legislature allocated money for that mandate. Now in 2017 the legislature has shifted that expense to school districts.  Local school boards must either agree to the unfunded mandate or hold a meeting to declare they don’t have the money.   Here in Pearland ISD, our Transportation Department has calculated  an additional $8,000 cost for each new bus purchase. Furthermore, retrofitting our existing buses (once parents realize that some have them and some don’t) will cost approximately $3 million.  Meanwhile the state’s school funding formula  “robs” approximately 2.9 million dollars of our local property taxes to pay for the state’s current school funding scheme.

During the 2017 legislative session, there are heroes and villains. After the Supreme Court in 2016 ruled Texas School funding as barely constitutional and in need of significant reform, the House made an honest attempt at reform in HB 21.  This was especially critical for Pearland ISD which receives approximately $1,000 less per student than the average school district.  We were most hopeful this bill would pass.

However, the Senate said no. Instead they insisted on giving government money to private schools and on lowering the property taxes necessary to comply with the public school mandates they passed! So the Senate killed the House bill as the legislative session ended last week.

The Senate’s own funding scheme robs local property wealth increases to help pay for the state’s share of education spending. This leaves many districts no other choice but to raise tax rates or cut services.  Yet these same Senators portray themselves as secular saints dedicated to lowering YOUR property tax bill – and to improving your child’s education!

Some may argue that over-regulated and under-performing public schools are  doomed to failure. This can become a self fulfilling prophecy. So Senators claim public education is rescued by handing out government money to private and Charter schools.  And in order to assure private schools that the government won’t interfere, they’ve promised NO accountability for educational results in those schools.  Meanwhile, the legislature just passed a new A-F accountability system to measure student achievement – but ONLY for public schools!  Remember these are the same Senators who want to expand Charter Schools despite a dubious record for student achievement gains in most of those schools.

The state continues to pass unfunded mandates inevitably leading to the public schools collapsing under their weight.  Private schools are then hailed as the only remaining answer.

But does anyone really believe that the state and federal governments will not then sink their talons into private schools, curtailing their religious and economic freedom?  Where government money flows, regulation soon follows. Having served as the principal of a private school many years ago, I remain leery about private schools depending on the government’s “favor.”

Here in Pearland ISD, we’ve continuously received a Five-Star Rating from the state for financial efficiency and student performance. Our top students go to the best universities in America. Ninety of our 2017 graduates just left high school with an Associate Degree (i.e. 2 years of college completed!) Hundreds more have significant AP college credit, dual college credit, and/or certificates in high paying career fields. The list of student achievements goes on and on.

So when the state refuses to do its part and instead adds new regulations to our public schools, they are Pharoah telling us to make bricks without straw. Our teachers are underpaid. Our facilities are aging and in need of expansion to accommodate the enrollment growth spurred by our educational successes.

Our  local citizens are doing more than their share. For example, in the absence of state help, they recently agreed to more bond debt in order to meet  facilities needs.

Meanwhile, the Texas Senate adds mandates and subtracts funding. 

INFLUENCING STATE FUNDING

In the midst of our current legislative session, there is a blizzard of confusing and contradictory reports about the important issue of school funding.  Attempting to report on each daily development is like trying to end a locust plague with a can of bug spray.  But let me hit a few highlights and (in answer to parent requests), give some recommendations on advocacy:

  • Within the two legislative bodies (House and Senate) there is a distinct difference about public school funding.  In the Senate, the focus for the first half of the session was on Education Savings Accounts, vouchers, Charter Schools and other avenues for providing state funding to private schools and individual families.  The House, on the other hand, has essentially labeled such Senate efforts as “dead”; therefore, it appears unlikely the corpse will re-emerge.
  • In terms of the total amount for public school funding, it appears the Senate and House are now somewhat close in total dollar amounts. The major difference seems to be over the origin of their too small funding increases. The House would allow dipping into the “Rainy Day Fund”; the Senate would prefer to essentially “borrow” money from revenue receipts two years in advance. In both cases, Pearland ISD’s projected funding falls far short of what is needed to provide raises to teachers – and resources to our growing student body.
  • Both the House and the Senate proclaim the reason they can’t do more for public schools is because of the downturn in oil prices and other sources of revenue.  (However, this hasn’t stopped the Senate from trying to find a new way to give funds to non-public schools and individuals.)
  • Final decisions on school funding are generally not made until the last few days of the session in May. This is caused by the necessity of compromises and the whimsical nature of politics. Unfortunately, it can leave the public little time to assess and undo any damage done.
  • There are two main problems with school funding: Adequacy and Equity.  Adequacy means having enough money to fund needs including all of the unfunded and partially funded mandates of state and federal law for public school education. Equity is ensuring that students receive somewhat equal funding regardless of what zip code they live in.
  • Unfortunately our Texas Supreme Court “took a pass” last year by declaring that our state’s funding system was badly flawed BUT constitutional – and essentially kicked the ball back into the legislators’ realm. In turn, this can provide an excuse for doing little or nothing.  (See my previous blog entries for more commentary on that.)

Here are my recommendations for those who have asked about contacting/ influencing the state legislature:

  • Arm yourself with facts: Before initiating or forwarding advocacy positions on social media or with a legislator, you may want to contact our Communications Office or my office to get factual information on the latest development, rumor or concern.
  • Adequacy: Concentrate on the funding “big picture” rather than on any special interest. The best way to defeat better school funding is to get everyone looking out for their own program or special interest. For example, over the past few days, misleading information on the elimination of categorical funding for particular programs (like Gifted/Talented services) has people upset. That portion of the proposed bill is merely a simplification, not a funding decrease within the state’s ridiculously complex school funding formulas. When special interests dominate, legislators often express frustration at the dissimilar positions taken by school districts. In turn, that can lead to inaction. It is the grand total of state funding for school districts that is important. In short, Pearland ISD needs more money to continue to produce excellence, hire and retain the best educators  – and to keep up with the yearly barrage of new and old state/federal mandates.
  • Equity: Pearland ISD receives approximately $1,000 less per student than the average Texas school district. This has gone on for more than a decade. It has resulted in the loss of tens of millions of dollars – and (again) is due to a “byzantine” funding formula that is a series of tacked on special interest “reforms” during each legislative biennium. The House and Senate need to get serious about school funding fairness such that it meets their rhetoric, their regulations and our realities.

Both Senator Larry Taylor (Chair of the Senate Education Committee) and Representative Ed Thompson favor additional funding levels for public schools. Rep. Thompson has also previously filed bills that would provide a combination of tax relief and additional funding for Pearland and Alvin ISDs due to our “fast growth” student enrollment.

Both our legislators are honorable men. Remember they have to listen to ALL sides.  While being blunt about the legislature as a whole, make sure your interaction with individuals demonstrates empathy, graciousness and respect for the difficult position they are in. Both men are fortunate to serve an area of Texas with stellar educational accomplishments – helping them make a strong argument for both adequacy and equity here in Pearland ISD!

 

 

REMEMBERING VIRGIL GANT

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On Sunday, June 26, this year, Rebecca Decker (board president) called me in tears to tell me that Virgil Gant, our longest-serving board member and my friend, had died earlier that day. On vacation with his wife and grandson, high winds buffeted the trailer he was hauling, flipped his vehicle, and instantly caused his death.

Annually, our Communications Department places a large group photo of our trustees here at the Education Support Center. This year, that photograph is extraordinary. Our trustees decided to gather around a framed photo portrait of Virgil.

This beloved man, age 68, served as a school board member here for 16 years. He graduated from Texas A&M and served his country for 28 years, rising to the rank of a Navy captain, including two tours of active duty in Vietnam. Here in Pearland he was known as a financial planner, prominent in the Boy Scouts, and a member of the Rotary Club. He was the school board president when I was hired. He and I always saw eye-to-eye. He had my back and told me so.

He was very proud of having influenced Rebecca to run for the school board — and even prouder when she was named president in May of this year.

The thing I always told others about Virgil was that he did so many acts of kindness and benevolence without telling anyone except those who needed to know. Boy Scout leadership can tell you about that. Pearland Rotary can tell you about that. Kids in Africa can tell you about that. St. Helen’s Church can tell you about that. Others I don’t even know can tell you about that.

I remember how excited he was about completing the famous Camino de Santiago de Compostela walk/pilgrimage in Spain. When he came back, he told me all about that arduous journey — and urged me to watch the Martin Sheen movie made about that same trek. Virgil was a man of faith.

On the night of his death, I prayed that God would somehow let me know that Virgil was fine. While I’m certainly no mystic, I had a dream that night that Virgil was climbing a beautiful evergreen tree way up in the air. If you saw Virgil’s physique, that paints an unusual picture. But it gave me reassurance.

I was leaving for a solo trip down I-10 to Arizona shortly thereafter. I had read newspaper reports about exactly where the accident occurred on that long lonely road near Ozona. One article said it happened at mile marker 343. I was listening to music on my car stereo. Just then, the song “Rise Up” by Andra Day began to play. This was of considerable comfort to me. If Jesus told the thief on the cross that he would be in paradise with him that very day, I should have no doubt about Virgil Gant, a strong man of faith.

One postscript: At the large funeral service for Virgil, his wife (Dr. Debbie Gant, well-known pediatrician in Pearland) came up to me and told me she wanted to do what she could to help the school bond pass — because it was what Virgil wanted and worked on. Yesterday (Tuesday, Nov. 8) I visited the polling site at Tom Reid Library. There sat Debbie under a “Back the Bond” tent, holding up a sign and urging folks to vote for our schools. Maybe Virgil is smiling up there. We sure miss him down here. . . .

 

(In)Effective Tax Rate Notices

Texas law mandates nonsensical language for school boards to use when they set the annual tax rate. The forced wording gives inaccurate information to taxpayers, falsely implying that the tax rate and available maintenance/operations revenue have greatly increased.

Despite keeping our tax rate identical to the rates of the last decade, we must use the following state-authored language when setting the tax rate in August 2016: “Move that the property tax rate be increased by the adoption of a tax rate of $1.4156 per $100.00 valuation, which is effectively an 8.70 percent increase in the tax rate.”

The mandatory resolution accompanying that decision also stated: “This tax rate will raise more taxes for maintenance and operations than last year’s tax rate. The tax rate will effectively be raised by 1.68 percent and will raise taxes for maintenance and operations on a $100,000 home by approximately zero dollars.”

That language, dictated by the Texas Legislature, is confusing and contradictory:

  • Our actual tax rate has remained constant over the past decade. We did not raise it at all in 2016.
  • The reason for the language comes from a calculation of what is called the “effective tax rate.” That rate attempts to calculate how much the proposed local tax rate will bring in compared to the previous year, given the increase in local appraisals (the tax base) this year.
  • But here is what makes that calculation absurd: The state’s current funding system for public schools lowers the state’s maintenance and operations funding for each school district in proportion to the amount that local tax revenue increases.  Therefore, local citizens do NOT see the benefit of increased local tax revenue for annual maintenance/operation costs.
  • Thus, the state fails to acknowledge its role in essentially confiscating local taxes by lowering state aid accordingly.
  • Decisions by the state a decade ago froze in place the revenue formula for each Texas school district. If you lived in one of the fortunate few districts that had a good local tax revenue year in 2006, you have reaped that advantage since then. But Pearland ISD has consistently received as much as $1,000 less per child than the average school district since then. So each time the state has increased public school funding in the last decade, such increases were simply placed on top of the frozen formula from a decade ago. The net result is greater inequities than ever across Texas.
  • So what “new” help do we get from the state this year to fund its many mandates and keep up with inflation? We received $8 more per student! We also receive “per student” funding (at a continuing lower level than other districts) for our increased student enrollment.
  • Our Texas Supreme Court was recently compelled to rule on school finance lawsuits. It proclaimed our funding system “byzantine” but “constitutional.”  The court also said it’s really none of its business and it did not want to “usurp legislative authority.” (So it’s unlikely the legislature will soon take meaningful action.)

For paying off debt early, there is a silver lining for Pearland ISD:

  • The other portion of our tax rate called “interest and sinking” is used to pay off district debt for facilities. It’s like paying the mortgage on your house. Since the state gives very little help for such purposes, we can use all local I&S tax revenue without any corresponding penalty/decrease from the state. So as values increase in our district, we collect more I&S revenue at the same tax rate. That helps us keep our tax rate reasonable and can be used to pay off debt early, saving millions. (That was done in 2015 and will happen again in 2017.)
  • Families and businesses flock to high-performing school districts like Pearland ISD.  The website WalletHub just rated Pearland’s educational system fourth best in the entire state — and that ranking helped designate the City of Pearland as among the top 10 cities for families in Texas. Such accolades draw families and businesses who share the tax burden. So while people in Pearland do see their tax appraisals go up, the market value of their houses also increases. In the same way, this benefits many local businesses.

Despite accolades for high achievement and financial efficiency (including a five-star rating from the state comptroller) in Pearland ISD, much of what the local citizens giveth, the state taketh away. Thus, the tax rate language dictated by the state obscures that truth.