While hundreds of school districts across the state await the results of a state Supreme Court case that could change Texas education financing forever, Spring and Klein ISDs have begun planning for a legislative mandate that could cost the districts millions of dollars this school year.
The mandate, which requires districts to install cameras in special education classrooms, is just one of many over the last few legislative sessions that are putting a strain on local school districts.
The state Legislature has been requiring districts to pay for unfunded mandates for decades, said Amy Beneski, director of governmental relations for the Texas Association of School Administrators.
“We get asked a lot, ‘Well, y’all got additional funding from the Legislature—why is that not enough?’” Beneski said. “It’s [not enough] because we have to implement a lot of things they do that they don’t provide funding for.”
Strain on the schools
Prior to beginning of the 84th legislative session this year, KISD was already budgeting for about $11.6 million in costs related to unfunded legislative mandates. The costs range from $2.6 million for dyslexia support staff and materials to $800,000 for energy-efficient light bulbs.
Although only about 2 percent of the district’s overall budget, the $11.6 million is equivalent to the salaries of about 200 teachers, said Thomas Petrek, associate superintendent of finances for KISD. Petrek said the district explains the strain of the mandates to legislators every session.
“In our position statement, we say that, ‘If you’re going to require us to do something and we don’t have the money for it, well then you need to provide the revenue stream to pay for these mandates,’” Petrek said.
SISD Chief Financial Officer Ann Westbrooks said the mandates can be difficult to fund, especially during a recession. A mandate from the Legislature that requires the district to keep elementary schools at a 22-1 student-to-teacher ratio was a challenge for the district in 2011-12 after the state cut more than $5 billion in education funding.
The district filed waivers in the 2011-12 school year to keep elementary school classes at a 23-1 ratio, which saved the district $2.4 million that year.
“In our position statement, we say that, ‘If you’re going to require us to do something and we don’t have the money for it, well then you need to provide the revenue stream to pay for these mandates.'”
—Thomas Petrek, Klein ISD associate superintendent of finances
Westbrook said the district will have to find $2.5 million in its budget this year to fund another recent mandate. Legislation passed in 2013 required districts to contribute an added 1.5 percent to the salaries of employees for whom the district does not provide Social Security benefits.
“That [is] $2.5 million that comes right off the top of our budget, which means that cannot go toward things, such as updating our technology, infrastructure or making maintenance and renovation improvements,” Westbrooks said.
Beneski said the unfunded costs to the district do not always come from mandates. In some cases, the state fails to keep up with its funding formulas—such as the transportation allotment, which has not increased since 1984.
State Rep. Patricia Harless, R-Spring, said the Legislature has tried to be more cognizant of the costs to districts in recent years.
Harless said she has voted against bills that required unfunded mandates of districts and even carried bills to alleviate unfunded mandates, such as legislation to increase the gas mileage reimbursement for school buses and reimburse election costs when districts were required to have a uniform election date.
“I hope we continue to go down the path that we don’t pass those along to school districts,” Harless said. “I do think it shortsighted of us when we do [that] when we don’t understand the cost.”
Perhaps the most substantial unfunded mandate passed by the Legislature this summer was Senate Bill 507. The bill, authored by state Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, requires school districts to provide cameras in special education classrooms for any parent of a special needs child who requests them.
“I will tell you from friends I know [who] have kids in some of these special needs classes: They are beat up on a daily basis,” said Harless, who voted for the bill. “[The] cameras would be beneficial in that classroom for the teacher, for the student and for the school for protection.”
Although SISD and KISD officials said the bill’s requirements will not kick in until the 2016-17 school year, the costs could be significant. KISD officials said if every special needs classroom in the district added cameras, it could cost the district more than $1.6 million a year.
Beneski said school districts understood the need for the bill to help protect students and teachers, but they also requested money to pay for the requirement.
The bigger issue?
While unfunded mandates from the Legislature cost Spring and Klein ISDs millions of dollars every year, the districts might be dealing with a more significant issue in terms of the overall state funding formula.
“Unfunded mandates are a small part of a much larger problem,” said Wayne Pierce, executive director for Austin-based education nonprofit Texas Equity Center. “It’s a very significant part, but the problem is much broader than just unfunded mandates.”
“That [is] $2.5 million that comes right off the top of our budget, which means that cannot go toward things, such as updating our technology, infrastructure or making maintenance and renovation improvements.”
—Ann Westbrooks, Spring ISD chief financial officer
Pierce said both Spring and Klein ISDs are underfunded compared to the top half of the state’s school districts. Rather than funding each mandate, Pierce said Texas needs to do a complete overhaul of education funding to make it more equitable and adequate for school districts across the state.
“It would be a huge mistake for—when the state does some mandate—[the state to] calculate it out for districts and send everybody that amount because [the funding would be] outside the system,” he said. “It needs to be systematic. It needs to go through the system.”
SISD and KISD are two of 600-plus school districts involved in the ongoing state education financing lawsuit against the state at the Texas Supreme Court.
KISD Superintendent Jim Cain said the districts believe the state’s education financing system does not provide equitable or adequate funding to every school district. Cain said placing unfunded mandates on top of the state’s funding shortage places a strain on the districts.
“If that continues year after year, that places a tremendous burden on the local school district,” he said. “I respect that you have people in Austin who are trying to make it all work, but maybe the best thing to do—instead of continuing to put Band-Aids on the system—is to really take a look at starting from scratch and building the system to reflect 21st century circumstances.”