Unfunded mandates stretch Fort Bend ISD

Unfunded state mandates are continuing to put pressure on Texas school districts, including Fort Bend ISD. The district is seeing the effects in its budget, where costs range from $50 for each employee background check to $3 million for school data reporting.

State mandates cover all areas of school activity, including instruction and special education, testing and accountability, school safety, human resources, administration and even parent notifications. Districts cannot pick and choose which mandates they follow, said FBISD chief finance officer Steven Bassett

“We’re compliant,” Bassett said. “Whether we like it or not, we’re going to follow the law.”
Bassett said the state usually gives minimal guidance on how to carry out mandates, leaving the Texas Education Agency to craft policy around them.

Unfunded mandates stretch Fort Bend ISDDistricts can apply for additional grant funding to fulfill state mandates, but allocations are not usually tied directly to mandates, according to Amy Beneski, deputy executive director of government relations for the Texas Association of School Administrators. As it stands, Texas’ funding formula is awaiting a decision on its constitutionality from the state Supreme Court.

But even if that decision comes this spring, FBISD does not anticipate any ripple effects at the local level for the 2016-17 budget year.

Scope of mandates

Unfunded mandates run the gamut, but Bassett said FBISD mostly sees regulations related to accountability or testing.

“Accountability is a big topic to [legislators and] to the business community,” he said. “I don’t think the public schools are unwilling to be held accountable.”

Regardless of what type of mandates the state passes, the most common effects are increased workloads for existing district employees and the need for additional personnel, according to a 2015 report on unfunded mandate costs by TASA and the Texas Association of School Boards. Bassett said House Bill 5, which was passed in 2013, did just that.

The bill changed high school graduation requirements and allowed students more flexibility on how they earn class credits. The goal of the bill is to let students earn more credits for career and technical education, which prompted FBISD to expand its CTE program with a new $59.4 million center.

Unfunded mandates stretch Fort Bend ISD“That changed a lot with regard to accountability,” he said.

Bassett said he did not think the district would have expanded CTE in the same way if not for HB 5.

FBISD hired 41 instructors with approximately $65,000 each in annual salaries and benefits for new CTE classes.

This is an example of what Beneski called “a double-edged sword” when it comes to unfunded mandates.

“It’s one of those things that districts asked for … because it’s the right thing for kids,” Beneski said. “But it has costs.”

She said providing those new classes could be more difficult for smaller districts.

Another example was Senate Bill 507, which passed in June and requires districts to install cameras in special education classrooms, by parents’ request, as a safety precaution. Bassett estimated the full capital costs for purchasing and installation would be $4 million, while ongoing costs for storage, reviewing tapes and other procedures would be about           $1 million annually.

The district is completing the necessary wiring and will purchase cameras upon request by parents, Bassett said.

SB 507 allows for schools to pay for the special education cameras with excess funds from the Foundation School Program, the primary source of state education funding that the TEA administers. But Beneski said additional money is typically unavailable.

Unfunded mandates stretch Fort Bend ISDAs with special education classroom cameras, Beneski said she believed mandates typically stem from good intentions on the part of legislators or advocates. But the lack of accompanying funding is what puts pressure on districts, she said.

“We encourage people to contact their legislators to ask how this will impact districts,” she said. “When you have the master funding cut like we had in 2011, we’re still educating the same amount of kids, and you have to reallocate or do attrition to let folks go.”

Mandatory class sizes are also a major cost driver. Districts must have a maximum 22-1 student-to-teacher ratio in grades K-4, although districts may request waivers to exceed that. If FBISD could use a 24-1 ratio in those grades, Bassett said, it would save the district over $14 million annually due to reduced staff needs.

“Schools have money,” Bassett said. “It’s just that when things get added to that … and we’re not able to keep up with [the rate of inflation], it makes it difficult.”

Budget woes

While unfunded mandates from the Legislature cost FBISD millions of dollars every year, the district might be dealing with a more significant issue in  the overall state funding formula.

FBISD’s percentage of state vs. local revenue dipped to its lowest point in five years—40.9 percent—in fiscal year 2015-16 and is projected to drop to 36.4 percent in FY 2016-17, according to FBISD budget documents. State education funding is based on enrollment as well as a district’s property values, both of which have increased overall in the last five years.

FBISD’s current 73,377 total enrollment is up 1.7 percent from 72,183 students in 2015. District enrollment grew  11 percent over the last 10 years, from 65,927 students in 2006, according to FBISD budget documents.

“As we collect more money locally from our taxpayers, the state contributions go down,” Bassett said.

The district is able to balance its budget every year, but at a cost.

“Funding mandates mean that other projections or more compensation for teachers is not funded to the extent we would like,” Bassett said. “We would like to have a richer compensation plan for our instructional staff.”

FBISD is also one of 600 school districts that filed suit against the state in 2011, claiming the formula is unconstitutional and does not equally support districts. The state Supreme Court heard arguments in the case, and a decision is expected as early as this spring.

A possible reprieve

Mandates are rarely repealed, and Texas Education Commissioner Mike  Morath said the TEA needs to be cognizant of how mandates affect districts differently over time.

“One of my objectives is to try to figure out how we can be as light a touch as possible, especially for districts like Fort Bend that are getting really good results for kids,” Morath said.

State Rep. Rick Miller, R-Sugar Land, disagreed with placing expiration dates on unfunded education mandates but said he thought the Legislature should review them for possible future funding. He said he asked FBISD what issues arise for the district from such mandates and said he will present his findings in the next legislative session.

Morath pointed out the Legislature’s passing of a program during its last session to give districts more legal flexibility. Districts of Innovation gives independent school districts the ability to opt out of certain regulations, similar to what is permitted for open enrollment charter schools. Innovation districts must meet accreditation requirements and craft an “innovation plan” of which mandates the district wants to opt out.

The program does not come with additional funding. According to TASB, the TEA is expected to publish a draft set of rules for Districts of Innovation in February, which were not released as of press time. FBISD has not decided whether to participate, but Superintendent Charles Dupre said his staff was looking forward to the TEA’s policy for the program.

“I believe in local control as much as possible and in eliminating all mandates,” Miller said. “But the decision to opt out must be carefully examined at the local level, and in fact on certain issues, will not be done because of the critical nature of the issue.”

Unfunded mandates stretch Fort Bend ISD


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