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 2009, 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.

SCHOOL FUNDING CRONYISM

The Texas Supreme Court recently and unanimously ruled that the state’s school funding system is constitutional. They stated: “Our Byzantine school funding ‘system’ is undeniably imperfect, with immense room for improvement. But it satisfies minimum constitutional requirements. Accordingly, we decline to usurp legislative authority by issuing diktats from on high, supplanting lawmakers’ policy WISDOM with our own.”

Having served as a public schools superintendent for the past 24 years, I will now translate that statement :

“Despite glaring school funding inadequacies and inequities, we, the Supreme Court of Texas, hereby hope our executive and legislative cronies are pleased. After all, we deferred to their WISDOM! Realizing our decision flies in the face of all common sense, we waited until we won our own Supreme Court election primaries in March and until a day when the media was distracted. We received the perfect gift on May 13, when the feds declared that boys have access to the girls’ bathrooms! Thank you, President Obama!”

The evidence for the unconstitutionality of our funding system is so overwhelming I wrongly predicted there was no chance the Supreme Court could overturn the findings of the district court. Boy, was I wrong. It took tortured language and 100 pages, but our Supreme Court found a way.

Austin legislative/judicial/executive cronies are breathing a sigh of relief and can instead issue loud cries against federal dictates about bathrooms. I see a stampede toward the nearest TV camera.

You must read with some caution my next prediction since I’m unable to fathom the incestuous relations among state cronies. But here goes: Legislators will wring their hands and tell us there is little they can do about funding. Both the sky and the price of oil are falling! However, those seeking national office will simultaneously tell us the Texas economy is the strongest and fastest-growing in the country. Though we’re near the bottom of all 50 states in school funding per pupil, we’ll be told money is not the answer.

Here’s the problem: There are seven inches of expensive state and federal regulations found in every school district’s administration offices. Who put them there? Answer: The very same legislative/judicial/executive branches telling us money is not the answer!

Do not look to either political party for salvation. These regulations have grown, not withered, during the past two decades by the so called party of “small government.” Significant deregulation of public schools allowing funding adequacy and efficiency is a pipe dream.

Meanwhile, our society has expanded the role of educator from classroom instructor to lifesaver and parent. Teachers are now like the ancient Israelites commanded by Pharaoh to increase the quota of bricks (graduates) — and find their own straw (money).

So this is the future as I see it: We’ll continue to be told the public schools aren’t doing enough, that Texas ought instead to provide additional government funding to charter and private schools. We’ll be told those less regulated environments will accomplish more. In the meantime, our own Pharaohs (including the Texas Supreme Court) will continue to add new inches of expensive special interest regulation to the state’s public schools, calling them “reforms.”

My World War II Marine Corps dad would have simply said to these Texas cronies: “Don’t shower me with spit and tell me it’s raining!”

 

The tourism lobby trumps education?

Statewide special interests undermine the common-sense decisions of locally elected leaders. For example, a few years ago the tourism industry — through the Texas legislature — decided when your child’s school year began. While new legislation now allows local officials to make some of those decisions, special interests are misleading parents and teachers into believing  vacations and working conditions will be ruined if their codified profits don’t continue. It’s not true. Allow me to give a little background:

Local Texas school board policy manuals are about four inches thick. In addition, the “Texas School Law Bulletin” consists of 1,553 thinly sliced pages. Of these seven total inches of regulations governing our schools, perhaps 2 percent can be generously attributed to decisions made by locally elected school trustees. (I won’t even include foot-long reams of federal laws and regulations.) Thus, claiming our state is the home of “small government” is like claiming Texas fits within the geographical boundaries of Rhode Island.

Even the entire Bible — consisting of  God’s commandments, man’s history and his future — is far shorter than Texas education law. It’s time to restore a little sanity.

So in 2015, the Texas Legislature took a step in the right direction by passing a law (HB 1842) titled “Districts of Innovation, allowing all but low-performing districts the opportunity to exempt themselves from a few Texas laws. Wise lawmakers realized that some of the same freedoms offered to charter and private schools might benefit public schools — and perhaps place them on a more even playing field.

Special interests are alarmed. Last week, the tourism industry asked the Texas Education Agency to curtail local control of the school calendar. They are lobbying legislators to pass new laws that further constrict local school/parental control over the calendar. And they seek to ally themselves with teacher group representatives, falsely claiming that local districts will use new powers to hurt working conditions.

Quite the opposite. Pearland ISD seeks (through this “Districts of Innovation” law) to end the school year before Memorial Day — instead of in June. We’d also like to improve working conditions for teachers by exempting them from some unnecessary regulations. We think the laws dictating overly-long teacher contract years, the length of school days and other regulations are counter-productive. We’d like to use our teacher/parent calendar committee to draft a school year preserving the local community’s interest in traditional holidays such as Labor Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks, MLK Day, spring break, Good Friday, Memorial Day, etc. In short, we’d like to build the calendar our parents and our educators deem best. Given our most recent ranking as among the top three districts in the Houston area as well as in the top 2 percent of the state (www.niche.com), we believe we have the academic performance and client satisfaction data here to inspire confidence in such local decision making.

It sounds enticing when the tourism industry touts beginning the school year after Labor Day and ending it before Memorial Day. But there are hidden unfavorable consequences in these dictates. Among these are fewer holidays during the school year, an uneven number of days for the fall and spring semester, an even longer school day and a continuing requirement for teachers to begin and end their employment year way beyond the students — even when professional duties are completed.

I anticipate the tourism industry will soon announce a “compromise” by applauding all deregulation — except that which directly affects tourism! That’s sorta like the Texas lottery founders who sold us their profit scheme as “for the kids”!

Decisions on the school calendar are best made close to home. But frankly, public schools do not have the legislative clout that special interests have. So please remain skeptical about the propaganda now underway — and help us retain our new and tiny foothold in local control. Be wary of any legislation next session that seeks to curtail, rather than expand, “Districts of Innovation.”

 

 

 

 

NATIONAL MENTORING MONTH

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Last school year our district mourned the untimely death of three students — each independently despondent over personal circumstances in their lives. We grieved partially because their deaths came without warning or outcry.

We are also aware there are MANY other students within our boundaries and throughout the nation who are experiencing academic difficulties, alienation or trauma.

Our Pearland ISD Board of Trustees and administration have deliberated over new and better ways to address these needs. In early spring last year, we devoted a special board workshop/training on that topic. Many ideas came forth. Among them, the most powerful tool we can conceive is a comprehensive mentoring program to reach students whose parents, educators or peers might identify as benefiting.

Who might benefit most? Students who are performing at academic levels below their ability, those experiencing difficulties in their everyday lives, those who might desire one-on-one interaction with a caring adult, et al.

Many research findings point out that nothing is more important to the education and well-being of a child than the presence of at least one caring adult pointing him or her in the right direction.

Research links mentoring to improved academic, social and economic prospects for young people — and in turn, this strengthens communities nationwide. Mentors can help equip young people to make responsible decisions, stay focused/engaged in school and avoid risky behavior.

We asked Mandy Benedix, who already oversees our renowned K-12 Grit Initiative, to lead this effort. As a two-time District Teacher of the Year with a huge heart for children and parents alike, she is ideally suited to give compassion, significance and comprehensiveness to our fledgling effort. Our new program is called RISE Mentoring, with RISE standing for Reach, Inspire, Support and Empower.

As of January 2016, we’ve signed up and trained 101 new mentors from the community and from our own employees. Right now, our counselors and others have identified about 70 more students who  could benefit and whose parents have given permission for an assigned mentor. And we have still other students being identified on an ongoing basis.

Our children will benefit from more community volunteers. So I make this pitch in January, designated as “National Mentoring Month” in America. Our RISE Mentoring Program involves contact with the student once a week, every week, for 30 minutes — for the duration of the school year. Mandy can be reached at 281.485.3203, ext. 66504. You can also visit http://www.pearlandisd.org/Page/634 or contact Mandy at mentoring@pearlandisd.org for more information.

May God bless our collective efforts!