MISSION, RGV – Property-poor and property-rich school districts in Texas are in agreement: the State of Texas is abdicating its responsibility when it comes to funding public education.

At a gathering of education and business leaders in both Harlingen and Mission, Rio Grande Valley leaders learned that the share of funding the State of Texas is providing for public education has dropped from 50 percent to 38 percent over the past decade. 

Carolina ‘Carol’ G. Perez

“The only way we have ever been able to fix this has been to sue the State of Texas,” said Missy Bender, board president for property-rich Plano ISD.

“We did this in 2004-05. We sued and we won. Local constituents were putting so much in and the state was taking advantage of that, it was deemed an unconstitutional statewide property tax.

“The State of Texas was putting 38 percent of the money in. The local investment was about 62 percent. Thanks to the courts, it went up to 50-50 in 2008. But since then the State has been reducing its share and now we are back to 38-62.”

Bender said if things keep going the way they are, Plano ISD will be bankrupt within four years. 

Carolina ‘Carol’ G. Perez, superintendent of property-poor Mission CISD, agrees the State of Texas needs to kick in a lot more money, to ease the burden of local taxpayers.

Missy Bender

“There has to be more money coming in at the state level,” Perez told the Rio Grande Guardian and RGV Public Radio 88 FM. “Now, the state is talking about decreasing the cost of education index and doing an increase in the basic allotment. If they do both we will still end up losing almost $6 million. We need new dollars pumped into the system.”

Perez and Bender spoke at a luncheon at the Cimarron Club in Mission. The event was hosted by the Greater Mission Chamber of Commerce, Earlier in the day, Bender spoke at an event hosted by the Harlingen Area Chamber of Commerce.

Both events were held in conjunction with the InvestED TX campaign. Other speakers included Jennifer Esterline, executive director of the Texas Education Grantmakers Advocacy Consortium, and Sagar Desai, chief operating officer for The Commit Partnership in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.

The four key policy positions of InvestED TX are:

•A strong focus on early literacy interventions, including Pre-K and K-2 literacy supports, to ensure that every student can read by 3rd grade

•Funding for students to reach proficiency at critical gateways, with greater resources for low-income students and English Language Learners

•Increasing teacher compensation to ensure retention of effective teachers and their support of students with the most significant challenges

•Systematically and sustainably improving our school finance formula to equitably increase per-pupil funding

CPPP Analysis

Center for Public Policy Priorities program director Chandra Kring Villanueva

Interviewed at the end of her speech at the Mission event, Chandra Kring Villanueva, program director for economic opportunity at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, gave her assessment of the State of Texas’ failure to accept its responsibilities for public education.

“We need a school finance system that actually reflects the cost of meeting the standards that we have in place. We are spending less money than we were a decade ago. We need to make sure we have the resources in place if we want good outcomes,” Villanueva said.

Asked how the State of Texas has been allowed to shrink its funding of public education, Villanueva said:

“It is because the State did not do anything to maintain its level of investment after it went to 50 percent. It just let local value grow to eat away at their share. Instead, they could have been adjusting the basic allotment for inflation, they could have been using any of the savings that they get when local values went up and recycled it back into the system. That would have kept the State’s share in line with the local share. The State just chose to make no effort to invest in public education.”

Villanueva said the way funding is collected allows the State of Texas to abdicate its responsibility.

“Local dollars go in first. So, it does not matter if you are a property poor or property wealthy district. If you are seeing any kind of economic growth in development, you are able to fill your own bucket sooner. So, we are not letting our school districts share in the state’s economic prosperity, unlike cities and counties who see an increase in their revenues when development happens. It is the State that benefits, not our schools.”

Asked what she hoped those in the audience would do next, Villanueva said:

“I hope that everybody connects with their local legislator and explains the kind of school system they want to see. I hope they are able to take their local experiences on what they are seeing inside their schools and inside their communities and their struggles with workforce development and really paint a picture for the legislature because too often they are very disconnected from what is going on, on the ground. I always encourage people to invite their legislator to tour their school and to look at their programs so they have a real idea what we are trying to achieve and to learn what these schools could do with more resources.”

Mission CISD analysis

Mission CISD Superintendent Carolina ‘Carol’ G. Perez

In her speech, Mission CISD’s Perez said Region One Education Service Center has already crunched the numbers.

“If the State of Texas reduces the cost of education index it is going to affect our Rio Grande Valley school districts. Region One Education Service Center has already done the research. We get about $338 million from the cost of education index. If we see the decrease it is going to affect us: we will $118 million. What does that mean for Mission CISD? That we can lose up to $14 million. Now, if the basic allotment is increased, we would still lose $5.9million. $6 million is still a lot for Mission CISD.”

Interviewed after her speech, Perez said quality education costs money. If Mission CISD does not get enough money it will lose teachers.

“The main message I wanted to get across is funding matters, especially for a school district such as Mission CISD where we have 80 percent of our students that are low socio-economic,” Perez said.

“We have got to level the playing field between wealthy districts and districts such as ourselves. Right now, with the talk about cutting the revenues, cutting the cost of education index, that index has strived to provide equity. If those revenues are lowered, we are going to lose about $14 million.”

Perez confirmed Mission CISD is losing some of its best teachers. Its turnover rate, she said, is 12 percent. With help from the Texas Association of School Boards, Mission CISD is studying teacher salaries to ensure the district pays the market rate. 

“Right now, we know we have got to put a quality teacher in front of our children so they can meet the academic achievement goals, and we have to have the best curriculum possible. So, we have to make sure that we have funding to retain qualified teachers to be in our classroom. To do that we have to rely on funding. We are trying to be good stewardesses with what we have.”

Asked if the Valley’s legislative delegation understands the struggles local schools have with funding, Perez said:

“We had Sen. Chuy Hinojosa came to a board meeting last night to give an award to our teacher of the year. We had an opportunity to talk to him. I have also reached out to some of our other legislators. I am confident they will go into bat for us.”

Plano ISD analysis

Plano ISD School Board President Missy Bender

Plano ISD’s Bender punctuated her speech in Mission with a video about school finance that was produced by the Raise Your Hand project. This project received funding from HEB.

Bender said Plano was struggling to meet its obligations under the Robin Hood property tax capture mechanism that sees property-rich schools send money back to the State of Texas.

“When you are in a property wealthy district and you experience property value growth due to favorable economic conditions, that causes the recapture obligations to the state, the Robin Hood system, to increase in an exponential way. That larger payment requirement comes out of our tax collections,” Bender told the Rio Grande Guardian and RGV Public Radio 88 FM.

“But, our tax collections are not enough to cover that payment. Therefore, it must come from our savings that we have squirreled away in a very conservative way. We can do that for four years, live off the savings to make that payment occur but at the end of that time payment (we will not have enough money to meet those obligations).”

Bender said Plano has been able to give a two percent pay raise to its teachers.

“That is happening. We are giving a raise and we are making our obligation payment to the state. At the end of four years we cannot continue to do those two things. So something changes. We have to re-evaluate our non-essential programing.”

Bender said Plano ISD is not the only school district in such a predicament.

“A lot of people assume that a wealthy school district means wealthy constituents. It does not. Everybody is suffering. Every district has a unique story. This year we sent $208 million back to the State. Last year it was $155 million. The year before that it was $100 million. The year before that it was like $34 million.”

Asked why it is going up so fast, Bender said it was just the State’s recapture formulas at work.

“The Robin Hood system was created in 1994 as a band aid to help others. It has evolved over time and it has outlived its useful life. It is no longer sustainable in its current form.

“What is funny, in a sad way, is this $208 million that we are sending to the State, the State is wanting to take credit for those dollars in their funding formula, to say that is part of their revenue stream with which to use to help others. It reduces the State’s contribution into that same system.”

Bender reiterated that the State of Texas is not fulfilling its obligations when it comes to funding public education. She said property taxpayers have a right to know what is happening, which is why she is championing legislation to provide greater transparency.

“The local share keeps going up, the State’s share keeps going down. They are putting in less and less. They are down to 38 percent now. I feel the public should know, when I send my money to the ISD, how much is staying there and how much is going to the state. What are they doing with it? I want to track it.”

In her speech, Bender had pointed out that Plano’s legislative delegation is very conservative. Asked if the delegation backed her efforts to get more funding for public schools, Bender said: “I have found support on the transparency side. Are they supportive also of addressing more money into the system to fix the school funding? You would have to ask each of them individually. Some of them have told me yes. Some have said yes, locally. We will just have to see how the politics plays out once we are into the session.”

Bender said there are grounds for some optimism when it comes to school finance.

“I would like to express optimism that, I feel like we are at a tipping point in Texas. I feel like the education, the business, the parent, the community organizations, are all coming together to say you must place your attention on this topic. We care about education in Texas and if we don’t address this now, when will we?”

Editor’s Note: The above story on public school finance in Texas is the first in a three-part series. Click here to read Part Two. Part Three will be posted on Dec. 17, 2018.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above story shows students from Mission CISD.