With the 86th Texas legislative session in full swing, Clear Creek ISD officials, members of various chambers and residents are eagerly watching how representatives address several school-related concerns.
Officials say the outlook is positive, and they are optimistic this session will be successful at bringing about change for CCISD and other districts across the state.
“We have a lot of horsepower with our leadership all on board with getting this done,” said state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood.
Here is a look at the issues CCISD is keeping an eye on.
For years, the portion of state dollars annually allocated to CCISD has been steadily shrinking. It is a statewide problem, Superintendent Greg Smith said.
At one time, the state funded about 50 percent of CCISD’s budget. Today, it is about 28 percent, he said.
CCISD has made up the state’s shortfall due to increasing property values, which has benefited the district by allowing it to not raise property taxes, but the state has “failed miserably” to provide its share, Smith said.
Taylor said that is going to change.
“We’re talking about a total revamp for school finance,” he said.
The Legislature has several extra billions of dollars compared to the previous budget. Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and state House Speaker Dennis Bonnen have all prioritized school finance reform, Smith said.
One idea is to increase the general allotment of dollars the state provides to schools, especially those with several low-income students, Taylor said.
“If you start with that [general allotment]being larger, it helps reduce the inequities between districts,” he said.
With extra state funding, CCISD would consider starting full-day pre-K classes to better prepare students for kindergarten, Smith said.
State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, has filed a bill that would spend $3.7 billion to give a $5,000 raise to each of the state’s full-time teachers.
A few districts are enrolled in a state program to pay the best teachers up to $100,000. Taylor said the state is encouraging other districts to enroll with funding that would start this year at $100 million per biennium and be increased an additional $100 million each biennium for 10 years.
Dallas ISD has undertaken the program and has seen a dramatic improvement in state test scores. The passing rate rose from 40 percent to 80 percent, Taylor said.
“When you see those kind of performance results, that’s worth investing into,” he said.
Smith wants merit-based raises to be fair. A teacher providing special education is just as valuable as a senior English teacher, Smith said.
“I’m all for raising teacher salaries,” Smith said. “I’m not so certain that using the STARR test as the dominating indicator is the best way of going about doing that.”
Last year was the first the Texas Education Agency used its new A-F system to grade districts. Starting in August, campuses will also be graded on the A-F scale.
“The A-F system is not going away,” Taylor said.
Despite CCISD getting an A, Smith and the district oppose the system because they claim it is more of a reflection of a district’s socioeconomics and uses only a few criteria, such as STAAR scores, to measure the success of students, which is “disrespecting” all the other educational work they do, Smith said.
“Our kids are more than just a letter grade,” he said. “They’re much more than that.”
Taylor said the new system is more efficient than the one it replaced, which classified districts as below standard or meeting standard. Under the old system, a school in the 8th percentile and a school in the 98th percentile could have the same rank, Taylor said.
“There was no differentiation,” he said.
The A-F scale gives the state a better snapshot of how districts are doing to help improve them, Taylor said.
State Rep. Brooks Landgraf, R-Odessa, has filed a House bill that would eliminate the STAAR test as a requirement of graduation.
In the meantime, CCISD uses its own community-based accountability report to measure success internally.
The district asked what the community would grade CCISD on, and they ranked STAAR scores last, prompting the district to use its own community-based report to evaluate its progress, Smith said.
The report, which the district has been using since the 2013-14 school year, includes residents’ grades on the district’s success, teacher retention rates, graduation rates, statistics on postsecondary decisions and much more. The report also includes information about students’ interest in the arts, music, athletics, robotics and other extracurricular activities, Smith said.
“All those things are critical to a well-balanced student,” he said.
CCISD has already done plenty to address school safety, including hiring 15 additional student-support counselors and 15 extra liaison officers, modifying campuses and increasing training.
But the district needs state funding to do more, Smith said.
“We need funding for more support counselors,” he said.
Smith is not sure how many counselors would be adequate but thinks each of the district’s 26 elementary schools, which have one counselor each, should have another. At a salary of $60,000 per counselor, the cost adds up quickly, Smith said.
“Those are ongoing expenses,” Taylor said.
There are also one-time expenses, such as building upgrades. Taylor and other legislators will file bills in the coming weeks to fund school-safety measures because the issue is a top concern.
“It’s on everyone’s radars,” he said.
CCISD also wants changes to drill requirements. Districts are required to do one fire drill a month. CCISD also runs lockdown drills. The district wants the state to mandate fewer fire drills to allow for flexibility in the drills students participate in, Smith said.
The district is also asking legislators to approve an allotment of money that could be used only for safety measures, Smith said.
Shari Sweeney, Clear Lake Area Chamber of Commerce vice president, helps organize a biennial trip to the Capitol for area stakeholders to discuss issues with representatives during legislative sessions. This trip, they will speak about several issues, including districts keeping local control as they address safety issues, Sweeney said.
“Everybody wants their own local control because every community is a little bit different,” she said. “What works here may not work in Santa Fe [or]may not work in Deer Park or wherever.”