Leaders in Cy-Fair ISD are asking lawmakers to re-evaluate the state’s school finance system as Texas is still working to make up a $5 billion hole the 82nd Texas Legislature left behind in 2011.
Chandra Villanueva, a program director for the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities, said the state is still about $3.2 billion away from where it would be if it had maintained public education funding levels from before the Great Recession of 2008.
Villanueva was one of several speakers to address the Texas Commission on Public School Finance at a March 19 hearing. The commission was created by House Bill 21 in the 85th Texas Legislature after lawmakers set out to reform the school finance system but could not agree on a solution. After a series of meetings throughout the year, the commission will deliver a report to the Legislature by the end of 2018 with recommendations for how the school finance system could be improved.
At the same meeting, CFISD Superintendent Mark Henry and Chief Financial Officer Stuart Snow testified as guests of Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston.
“Even with the efficiencies that private industry would be envious of, Cy-Fair ISD is now facing a funding crisis that will begin to impact our outcomes,” Henry said.
The district adopted an $18 million deficit budget of $902.2 million this year, and budget cuts are expected to grow without changes in the school finance system, Snow said. Since the 2013-14 school year, state funding has gone from 53.6 percent to 39.6 percent of CFISD’s budget, with local taxpayers making up the difference, according to district data.
“Without another round of massive budget cuts, we are facing a budget deficit in 2018-19 in excess of
$50 million,” he said. “Unless circumstances change, and if revenues continue to decline, even greater deficits are projected for the near future.”
Snow said if state revenue continues to decline, the district will be faced with difficult decisions. They could include holding a tax ratification election to increase the maintenance and operations tax rate, eliminating the optional 20 percent homestead exemption, making significant budget cuts or drawing the operating fund balance to “imprudent levels.”
Two of these options involve raising taxes for Cy-Fair residents, he said.
“We believe that true tax relief begins with adequately funding schools,” Snow said. “We would propose increasing the state share of funding to the level of 50 percent as it was several years ago.”
To prevent budget cuts and tax increases, Snow presented a list of recommendations to the commission to help balance state and local contributions, including updating the existing funding formulas and identifying additional state revenue sources to dedicate solely to public education.
Henry and Snow told the commission the district does everything possible to maintain financial efficiency, but state revenue levels continue to decline faster than local revenue levels grow.
Villanueva said she believes when schools receive better funding, they are better able to provide small class sizes, professional development and support for teachers. They can also provide more access to resources that keep students engaged, including science labs, computers, art and music.
Henry spoke about the district’s reputation of financial efficiency and high academic performance, citing several best practices, including a districtwide curriculum at all 91 campuses and a three-tiered transportation system that transports 80,000 students daily.
“We think we do have best practices throughout most of our system, and if we’re hurting, I know a lot of other school districts are hurting to an even greater level,” Henry said. “People [living in Cy-Fair]understand that the success of our school district is vital in the success of their business[es]and their churches and their hospitals and their property values.”