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AISD remains hopeful about school finance bill

Wednesday, May 13, 2015 by Courtney Griffin

Austin Independent School District trustees received good news Monday: A state bill restructuring school finance, House Bill 1759, still has wind in its sails.

In the hour-plus monthly meeting with staff, AISD Intergovernmental Relations Committee members heard updates on several key state legislative items that might affect the district if passed. Staff has tracked more than 900 education-related bills in the 84th legislative session.

“There’s been a flood … more this session (than others),” said Board Member Ann Teich.

Marshall Kenderdine, a lobbyist consulted by AISD, said he expects the House Calendar Committee to place HB 1759 on the floor Thursday afternoon for discussion and a possible vote.

“If they have a bunch of bills they want to kill, and this is done pretty frequently, they’ll put it somewhere on the calendar and a bunch of bad bills behind it, knowing it’ll take a lot of time,” Kenderdine said.

AISD Director of Intergovernmental Relations and Policy Oversight Edna Butts said Thursday is the last day for the House to consider house bills and joint resolutions on second reading. This means that if HB 1759 is not heard on the floor by Thursday, it has no chance of passing out of the House.

Proposed by Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen), HB 1759 would reorganize the Texas public school finance system and lessen AISD’s large annual contribution to state coffers, as well as change several weighted measures used to determine state funding.

AISD is the highest contributor of recaptured property taxes in Texas, giving nearly 11 percent of its local tax revenue back to the state.

The district expects to put about $175 million into state pockets this year, said Nicole Conley, AISD’s chief financial officer. That number equates to about 55 percent of AISD’s total tax revenue.

If passed, Aycock’s new school finance system would result in a $48 million increase in AISD’s maintenance and operations budget for fiscal year 2016, a 7.5 percent increase compared to the previous year. 

Kenderdine said that on the House side, it seemed like some opposition to the bill was coming from representatives with the Region 1 Educational Service Center. Region 1 districts include Brownsville ISD, Harlingen CISD, Laredo ISD and others near the southern border of Texas. Another group in opposition, according to Kenderdine, is the Texas Association of Rural Schools. However, he added, even now, not all of the representatives from the valley are opposed to it.

Addressing general concerns from the opposition, Kenderdine said Aycock and House leadership have made it clear that if the Senate attempts to pass HB 1759 without its full funding — an expected $3 billion — representatives will kill the bill in conference committee or ask Gov. Greg Abbott to veto the bill. This would ensure that school districts do not end up worse off than before the bill, Kenderdine said.

“That bill really touches on so many of our priorities,” Butts said. “The Cost of Education Index, the transportation allotment and the recapture initiative.”

Board President Gina Hinojosa, who had just come from a meeting with representatives from the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund who are lobbying for HB 1759, said the current recapture system that attempts to address inequity severely underrepresents Texas’ growing and underserved urban school population.

“(AISD trustee) Paul Saldaña was with me to give the perspective of high taxes in his part of the world, where people are not able to live there anymore, and (discuss) the equity issue that invokes,” Hinojosa said. “But again, they wanted to cite (Edgewood ISD) and (Alamo Heights ISD). But there are 500 students in Edgewood and 5,000 in Alamo Heights. … We were able to say, ‘You need to start thinking about the (urban school districts) and not just the valley. We’ve got all these kids, and this is where the battle is at now: urban education.'”

Some of AISD’s top priorities this session are in line with other large urban school districts such as Houston ISD. They include supporting bills that provide changes in areas like the recapture system, the largely unfunded transportation allotment and the Cost of Education Index and improvements in funding for at-risk students and English language learners.

The district is supporting and opposing many other bills as well.

AISD is supporting Senate Bill 313, which would review the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, or TEKS, mandated curriculum. It would require education officials to map out the time and resources it would take a student to learn all the TEKS required on standardized tests. If the TEKS could not be taught by the April testing dates, officials would narrow the content and scope of the TEKS along with testing requirements.

AISD is opposing Senate Bill 4, commonly known as the school voucher bill, which has passed out of the Senate. A darling of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the bill gives $100 million in tax credits to businesses who donate money to provide private school scholarships. It has been referred to the House’s Ways and Means Committee.

AISD also opposes Senate Bill 894, which would allow students to enroll in virtual, online schools full time. The bill strips the right of school districts to regulate how many online courses students take and their degree of control over a course’s curriculum. However, Butts said, it still ties district accountability ratings to the students’ test scores.

By Euthman Ed Uthman (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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