School finance bills in the Texas House and Senate appear to have stalled, leaving questions as to how billions of dollars will be cut from public education.
Legislators are looking to reduce school funding over the next two years as the state struggles with a multibillion-dollar shortfall. But the two key bills that would have spelled out exactly how to apply cuts to public schools seem to be dead.
With the legislative session ending this month, many are now worried about whether there's enough time to address school budget cuts. If not, a special session could be called.
"This is the most stressful legislative session I've ever been through," said Hank Johnson, chief financial officer for Fort Worth schools.
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Longtime school finance and legislative observers are stunned by the lack of movement on the issue, especially as school districts make drastic cuts -- including layoffs -- to offset the drop in funds.
"I never thought I'd see things this far off the track," said Dan Casey, a school finance consultant.
The House and Senate each had plans to make significant cuts to public education, with the Senate eliminating $4 billion and the House about $6.5 billion.
But Thursday was the last day for a bill to be voted out of the House, essentially killing Rep. Scott Hochberg's House Bill 2485 on school finance. Portions of that legislation could still be added to other bills as an amendment.
Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said Senate Bill 22 doesn't seem to have enough support from Democrats to keep moving.
"But the old expression 'Let's keep hope alive' is true,'" Shapiro said. "I think [school finance] can be addressed in some way if we can have something to work with."
Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, said she could not support SB22 as presented because it does not address the structural deficit of school finance and because it reduces the state's financial obligation to schools.
"Anything that takes $4 billion out of public education, I'm opposed to it," Davis said.
If attempts to add school finance legislation as amendments fail, schools could receive their funding based on a proration provision, which means schools would maintain their current level of funding next year and into the following year until the state runs out of appropriated money, which some legislators estimate to be February 2013.
Schools would then have to make up the deficit locally -- by using taxes, fund balances or other means -- and would be repaid by the state when the Legislature meets again in two years.
"Districts need to know with some kind of certainty what their funding levels will be," said Dax Gonzalez, spokesman for the Texas Association of School Boards. "You can't staff and run a school with a promise like that."
Ray Freeman, deputy director of the Equity Center, which advocates for poorer districts, said that the situation is not ideal but that the proration option could be better than the proposed school finance legislation, which he said would not fairly apply cuts to districts.
He said proration would at least maintain funding levels for districts temporarily while giving the Legislature time to meet in a special session to address funding issues properly.
"There are several issues that make people nervous about this and rightfully so," Freeman said. "But if it could be done in such a way where those concerns are addressed before the second year, that could help."
Staff writer Aman Batheja contributed to this report.
Eva-Marie Ayala, 817-390-7700