A backdrop to school budgets and tax rates

Posted Tuesday, Sep. 03, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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The month of August welcomed the sound of school bells across Texas. Families will send more than 5 million children through the doors of public schools this year. August also included the discussion of school budgets and taxes.

As a school board member, I know the diligent work thousands of Texas public school trustees put into discussing and approving school budgets and tax rates necessary for student achievement. Within these conversations, there is an important backdrop to the decisions all school boards ultimately make. Despite the fact that we are considered “independent” school districts, our local financial decisions are heavily impacted by the actions of the Texas Legislature.

Here is a chronological history of events involving legislation that has influenced the financial decisions made by every school board in Texas.

•  2006: Forced by a school finance lawsuit in 2005, the legislature restructured the school finance system to improve the equity in funding all districts. However, it failed to provide the necessary funds to adequately educate all children. Legislators also incorporated tax relief by reducing local property taxes by one-third. Local property taxes is the source that provides much of the funding for public schools. With a one-third reduction in property taxes, a business margins tax was designed to make up the difference.

•  2007: Structural problems within the newly created school finance system began to surface. The revenue system designed to fund schools froze the dollar amount per-pupil at 2006 levels. The system did not take into account future changes in district demographics or operations.

•  2008: For many districts, the financial forecast worsened with future projections unsustainable. The revamped business margins tax failed to replace the one-third reduction in property taxes.

•  2009: With a weak economy at center stage, the 81st Legislature used $3.2 billion from the Rainy Day Fund to close the state’s budget deficit. In addition, legislators helped balance the budget by using $3.4 billion earmarked for public education and replaced it with $3.4 billion “one-time” federal stimulus money. This temporary solution to funding schools would prove costly in 2011.

•  2010: Reductions in staff and opportunities for students were now realities. Communities across Texas supported their schools by raising local property taxes. Some districts, including Aledo ISD, reduced the I&S taxing component and raised the M&O taxing component by the same number resulting in a net zero tax burden on the community – a temporary solution as a result of a broken school finance system. [Note: The Interest and Sinking (I&S) tax pays for debt from previous bonds issued for building facilities. The Maintenance and Operations (M&O) tax pays for salaries, fuel, utilities and day to day expenses.]

•  2011: The 82nd Legislature cut funding for public schools by $5.4 billion. More than 10,000 teaching positions were eliminated, class sizes grew and student enrichment opportunities reduced. Local tax elections continued to shift the tax burden from the state to local communities.

•  2012: Student enrollment and the cost of education continued to grow. A majority of public school districts united and sued the State to address the inequitable and inadequate system of school finance. A state judge agreed with the school districts and issued a preliminary ruling in their favor. A final decision is scheduled for 2014.

•  2013: The 83rd Legislature addressed school funding by restoring $3.4 billion of the $5.4 billion originally cut in 2011. Keep in mind, the restored amount also represents funding student enrollment growth currently averaging about 75,000 new students in Texas schools each year.

Conversations about school budgets and tax rates can be difficult. A shared ownership and communication between the communities and school districts are keys to successful outcomes. School boards across Texas know the ultimate goal is to provide the best education for all children as efficient as possible. Make Education a Priority - A Responsibility Shared by All.

Bobby J Rigues is the founder of Make Education a Priority, a Leadership TASB Master Trustee, and Aledo ISD Board Member. www.schoolpriority.com ; www.facebook.com/MakeEducationPriority.

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