Texas officials debate future of public education system in 84th Legislature


With the 84th Texas Legislature underway, state representatives and senators plan to address a number of pressing issues, including one of the state’s most often debated topics—public education.

Since the session began Jan. 13, several legislators have filed bills and launched discussions to tackle historic sources of contention within the public education system. These topics include school financing structure, the instructional materials fund, homestead exemption and curriculum changes that have the potential to affect the state’s 1,200 districts, including Tomball and Magnolia ISDs.

“Probably the most significant bill on a large scale is [state Rep. Jimmie Don]Aycock’s House Bill 654, where he’s talking about trying to essentially force some consolidation of [school district]tax bases,” said Dan Casey, who has more than 30 years of experience in Texas public education and is a partner at the Austin-based firm Moak, Casey and Associates. “There’s just a lot of historical irritation about dollars lost, and that’s some of the frustration they are running into.”

Outlook for Tomball ISD

A topic of contention for TISD officials is proposed changes to the state homestead exemption in the 84th Legislature, which has remained untouched since 1997. Homestead exemptions allow residents to remove part of their home’s value from taxation to lower property taxes.

State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, filed Senate Bill 278 on Jan. 9, which is designed to increase the minimum state homestead exemption from $15,000 to $25,000 and allow annual adjustments for inflation. Under the new bill, a resident would pay taxes on a home appraised at $100,000 as if it were worth $75,000. The exemptions are open to individuals who have owned their primary residence since Jan. 1, 2015.

“One of the concerns I have honestly is really the legislation about increasing the homestead exemption through the Legislature,” TISD Chief Financial Officer Jim Ross said. “If that occurs, what happens is the Legislature is basically taking from us the ability to pay our debt because they are reducing our tax base.”

Another issue expected to provoke debate this session is the weighted average daily attendance, or WADA, factor affecting the amount of state funds allotted to each district. WADA is defined as a measure for compensating school districts for educating students who cost more to the district, such as those in special education or gifted classes.

“We would like to see the legislators remove or reduce the per WADA reducing factor in order to see an increase in state funding,” Ross said. “This is a restraining factor added in 2011 to the funding formulas. It was designed to limit our revenue per pupil.”

In May 2013, Tomball voters approved the district’s $160 million bond, and TISD officials anticipated an enrollment increase of more than 3,700 students in the following five years, TISD Communications Director Staci Stanfield said.

“Our enrollment has increased a little faster than expected,” Stanfield said. “We’re growing at about 6 percent each year.”

With an enrollment of 13,288 students, TISD officials are preparing to better accommodate the district’s growth through the construction of four new schools supported with $90.1 million in 2013 bond funds, Stanfield said. Creekview Elementary School, Wildwood Elementary School and Oakcrest Intermediate School are scheduled to open this August, and Creekside Park Junior High is slated to open for the 2016–17 academic year.

Stanfield said district officials do not have plans to place another bond referendum on the ballot and are focused on completing the 2013 bond projects.

MISD goals

With input from nearly 500 teachers, MISD developed and presented a legislative initiatives document to state Rep. Cecil Bell Jr., R-Magnolia, on Dec. 8 during the board of trustees meeting. Among the top concerns for MISD are the distribution of the instructional materials allotment, a defined retirement benefit plan for teachers and a budget that adjusts funding weights for fast-growth school districts.

“It is time to stop fighting about school finance and time to start fixing our schools to make them better for our students,” Abbott said. “We must also return genuine local control to the school districts in Texas. The ultimate parental involvement is giving parents more choices in their children’s education.”

“It is very important to know this is a representative form of government,” Bell said. “When issues about this district are coming before the Legislature, my cause will be to [Superintendent] Dr. [Todd] Stephens and the rest of the folks who are in this district. The same holds true for any issues that [the board of trustees]finds to be a challenge.”

In 2011, the 82nd Texas Legislature established the instructional materials allotment for public districts and charter schools as a measure determined annually for the purchase of educational materials, such as textbooks as well as technological equipment and technology-related services.

“A bunch of new textbook adoptions in major curriculum areas are coming up [for the 2015–16 school year]and districts are not seeing enough money coming from the state to really accommodate new materials they have to buy,” Casey said. “There’s a lot of concern about districts having to shell out a lot of money from their own pockets on instructional materials.”

In addition, MISD Communications Director Denise Meyers said two of the biggest challenges facing the districts across the state is understanding the complexity and implementation of an evolving public education accountability system and ensuring communities are able to support enrollment growth.

For the 2014–15 school year, enrollment has climbed to 12,458, growing 2 percent from 2013–14, Meyers said. The district works with Templeton Demographics to review economic, housing and enrollment data and projections in the area on a monthly basis to determine a need for future schools, she said.

“The one thing that we as a community have total control over is our facilities,” said Deborah Rose Miller, MISD board of trustees president. “We as a community get to pick where they’re going to be, the size and how we want them to look. We need to exercise that right and that control.”

Miller said the district assembled a facilities committee in December to determine a possible need for a bond referendum of a yet-to-be-determined amount this fall to help construct new schools in the near future. The committee consists of leaders with the Greater Magnolia Area Chamber of Commerce, the Magnolia Parkway Chamber of Commerce and about 50 parents who conducted district facility tours in mid-February. The group will continue to meet every few weeks until early fall, Miller said.

“It’s been 11 years since Magnolia has been to the polls for a bond,” Miller said. “First, we are going to look at [a possible bond]without a tax increase to the taxpayers. The key we are looking at as a district is to make sure no matter where you live in Magnolia that your school meets the needs [of its students]and has the right standards.”

Legislative outlook

TISD and MISD officials said they remain optimistic for a positive financial outcome during the 84th Legislature, though school funding issues are expected to spark heavy discussions this session.

On Feb. 17, Gov. Greg Abbott addressed the Legislature in his State of the State speech and outlined his priorities for public education. In his proposal, Abbott noted $403 million designed to improve student educational outcomes with full funding for school system formulas and offering more local control for parents and teachers. In addition, Abbott declared improving early educational opportunities as his first emergency item for the session.

“It is time to stop fighting about school finance and time to start fixing our schools to make them better for our students,” Abbott said. “We must also return genuine local control to the school districts in Texas. The ultimate parental involvement is giving parents more choices in their children’s education.”

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