LYFORD, Texas – A number of school districts in the Rio Grande Valley are trying to get the Legislature to end what they says is an unfair funding advantage being afforded South Texas ISD.
“Edcouch Elsa ISD is funded $30 million less than South Texas ISD for a similar student population,” said Lyford CISD Superintendent Kristin N. Brown.
Asked why Lyford CISD started to investigate the financial structure of South Texas ISD, Brown said:
“It basically started because our school district, for the first time in almost 20 years, went out for a bond last spring. And during the bond, one of the questions that was asked of me and the board was, why do taxpayers have to pay for South Texas ISD? So the board started investigating. And I started digging into it, asking some questions, and reporting back to the board. So that’s what has brought us here.”
Brown said one of the questions raised was, how did this funding inequity occur.
“If you go to the South Texas ISD website, they actually have a history of their school district. And almost 60 years ago, the school district was created under a rehabilitation program from the state legislature. That rehabilitation program was designed to serve special education students from Willacy, Cameron and Hidalgo counties. And at that time a rehabilitation district could tax up to five cents per $100 of property valuation in order for this service to be provided. So that’s that’s how it was initiated,” Brown said.
Brown said South Texas ISD then morphed into something else when the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act kicked in.
“That Act said you can no longer take special education students out of their home setting and house them all in one single school district. And so the special education students were sent back to their home school districts and South Texas ISD became a magnet school.”
Brown said that as a magnet school, South Texas ISD started Med High, the Science Academy with a very specific purpose, a very specific mission in terms of the type of education they provided to students.
Fast forward to today, however, and many regular school districts are providing the same degree of specialization in certain career paths, Brown argued.
“All school districts are required by the State of Texas to have career and technical education. So, all school districts are offering similar programs (to South Texas ISD). For every program that South Texas ISD is offering, there’s a comparable program that can be found at Lyford High School.”
Brown acknowledged that Lyford CISD does not offer a specialty such as dentistry, which South Texas ISD does. “But, Harlingen CISD and Harlingen High School Harlingen is offering the dental program just like South Texas ISD has. The bigger the school district, the more programs they have.”
Brown said South Texas ISD is collecting more than $30 million in taxes from the three counties, yet today are not offering anything different to regular school district.
“Where it gets really interesting is if a child moves into my school district and they have proof of residence, that they live within my school district boundaries, right there we’re required to enroll them regardless of grades, attendance, discipline. We’re required to enroll them. They are residents of my school district,” Brown said.
“What’s unique about South Texas ISD is all children in Willacy, Cameron and Hidalgo counties are residents of their school district. However, to enroll you have to complete an application. And it your child does not get admitted to South Texas ISD, you’re still required to pay taxes to that school district. Nowhere else in the state of Texas is there a system established the same way.”
Brown reiterated that point. “Willacy, Cameron and Hidalgo counties are the only three counties in the state of Texas that are required to pay two separate independent school district taxes. But, your children are not guaranteed admission into South Texas ISD.”
Brown said there is a big difference in funding between South Texas ISD and Lyford CISD.
“They’re being funded at over $12,000 per student, Lyford is being funded at a little over $7,000 per student. So in general, they receive 40 percent more funding than we do.”
Brown said there was a document put out by the Equity Center at the request of Gonzalo Salazar, superintendent of Los Fresnos CISD.
“When you look at that document, you can see that at the high end within the region, within the three counties, some school districts are $7,500 or $7,600 per student. Lyford is at $7,030 per student, but South Texas ISD is at about $12,000. They’re collecting over $30 million in taxes with an additional $39 million in state revenue.”
Brown said there is “a definite inequitable system” that has evolved that helps South Texas ISD. “One is the duplication taxes to our taxpayers and the second is the inequitable amounts that are being paid to South Texas ISD by the state.”
Brown said a resolution opposing the status quo been passed by Lyford CISD and other local school districts.
“South Texas ISD was formed under one idea and over the course of 60 years they have they have transitioned into what they have become today, which is a comprehensive high school model just like every other school district,” Brown said.
“And some people do not even know they are paying taxes to a separate school district. I have had people tell me that they thought South Texas ISD was South Texas College that they thought it was a community college tax.”
It was put to Brown that South Texas ISD’s unique funding formula has been around for a long time. So, why has it flared up now as an issue?
Brown responded: “I’ve talked to a couple of retired superintendents that had a little more background and information of the situation. It seems that the question has been raised in the past, but that there was no action taken. But, for the sake of our property owners and our taxpayers, this definitely needs to be brought to the attention of our legislators.”
So, what is the next step?
“Our next step is to find a legislator who is willing to carry a bill on behalf of the taxpayers. There are two requests that we have of our legislators. One is to eliminate the duplicate tax and the second is to ensure that South Texas ISD is funded at equitable levels compared to other school districts.”
Editor’s Note: In our next edition we will publish South Texas ISD’s perspective.
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