Archive for June, 2019

SCHOOL FUNDING DILEMMAS

Over the past six months, the legislature promised school funding “reform” consisting of property tax relief and more state dollars for school districts.

The outcome for individual districts across the state varied greatly. How did Pearland ISD fare?

On a positive note, the state’s action reduces our tax rate for the 19/20 school year by 5.5 cents. That amount essentially wipes out the rate increase we would have otherwise employed to pay for the voter approved 2016 bond election. Thus the state’s shifting some of the burden for school funding from property taxes to state revenues is both overdue and much appreciated. (For Texas as a whole, the state’s burden for funding public schools increased from 38% to approximately 45%.)

On a negative note, Pearland ISD is ranked near the very bottom for additional school funding for the next two years. Districts that received better funding are those with higher number of students in poverty and somewhat contradictorily, others with the wealthiest tax bases. Thus the “Robin Hood” districts including Houston, Austin, Dallas, and wealthier smaller districts get to keep more of their own tax dollars – creating a giant windfall for them.

A campaign flyer from Lt. Governor Patrick promised his intention to raise statewide teacher salaries by $10,000.00. Subsequent to the elections, the Senate then touted a reduced $5,000 raise. The House was more realistic, essentially promising some salary/benefits funding – combined with local discretion as to how additional dollars are spent.

The ultimate legislative outcome (in June 2019) varies widely among school districts.  Urban “Robin Hood” districts and at least a few fortunate others are flush with cash and initiating pay raises up to 8% or higher.  Other districts less fortunate are planning 2% raises.

Here in Pearland ISD, the Board just passed a 3.25% raise for teachers/counselors/nurses/librarians with 6 or more years of experience, a 3% raise for others in those same roles, and a 2.5% raise for all other employees. Unfortunately, those raises use up ALL additional funding for the 19/20 school year. So the district must delve into its saving account to help mitigate rising costs for non-salary items in the coming year.

Realizing the legislature also passed a host of new state mandates on school safety, security, and student mental health, the district must continue to make every dollar count in both 19/20 and 20/21.  The Board’s plan is to remain as competitive as possible with regard to educator salaries – and to remain extremely vigilant about all other necessary expenditures.

We have long maintained a Maintenance and Operations (M&O) portion of the tax rate at a level lower than most districts in the area. On the other hand our Interest and Sinking (I&S) rate is higher than average because of rapid student growth over the past decade requiring renovation/expansion of our 23 campuses – through bond funds.

Ironically, the 2019 legislature’s intention was/is to lower M&O property taxes; yet Pearland ISD may have to ask voters to approve an M&O  tax increase in Fall 2020 – to make up for the inadequate state funding formulas applied to our district.

We continue to earn a 5 Star rating from TxSmartSchools for our combination of high student performance and high financial efficiency. In fact, we are one of less than a dozen school districts (out of more than 1,000) that continue to earn that distinction each year. But frankly, I’d exchange at least one of those stars for some extra dollars in the coming two years.

School funding is also tied to student enrollment.  Our enrollment has been essentially flat, for various reasons, since Hurricane Harvey. Yet within that same enrollment total, we now have a significantly higher percentage of economically disadvantaged students, special education students, bilingual/ESL students, and others who require additional attention/funding. And the  prevalence of increased mental health issues among our nation’s youth must take greater priority. Such services can’t happen without increased resources.

It is only the extraordinary efforts of our teachers and staff, supplemented by many conscientious parents,  that have placed the academic results for Pearland ISD in the top tier of Texas (as noted by the Commissioner in August 2018). Maintaining those results in the wake of ever increasing demands for student services – and without the accompanying state dollars – remains a looming challenge for our community.