Unfunded mandates costing Texas school districts

Unfunded mandates costing Texas school districts

School districts across the state, including Conroe ISD, have begun planning for a legislative mandate that could cost millions of dollars.

The mandate, which goes into effect for the 2016-17 school year, requires districts to install cameras in special education classrooms if a parent requests them. It is just one of many unfunded mandates 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.”

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. Districts must also store and record audio and video for up to six months.

Conroe ISD, which has 60 campuses, believes the mandate could cost the district more than $1 million simply because of requirements for storage and keeping the information secure, said Chris Hines, deputy superintendent of operations for CISD.

“I understand the intent, but it has a lot of ramifications and complications in terms of the cost and technology to make it work,” he said. “I don’t think any organization is exempt from that—you make a decision for a good reason and find out later on there is a cost for implementation.”

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 is shortsighted of us when we do [that] when we don’t understand the cost.”

The state’s instructional materials allotment, which went into effect in 2011 after it was approved by the Legislature, also has effects on CISD. Several years ago, the state moved to a system in which each district received money per pupil for textbooks versus purchasing books and shipping them to districts based on what they ordered.

“When I think of unfunded mandates, [the IMA] is not so much an unfunded mandate, but something that’s not adequately funded,” Hines said. “The reality is, even though we receive quite a bit of money, it doesn’t go far enough. Previously, I might have purchased a $75 math book and the state sent it to me and it lasted eight years,” he said. “Now to get that book I pay $15 a year.”

Hines said CISD designs its budgets based on what the district anticipates its real costs to be every year.

“When we know something comes into place we plan ahead, but sometimes it is hard to put a number to it,” he said. “That’s where you’re at a disadvantage because you don’t know the real cost until you do it.”

Although unfunded mandates from the Legislature cost districts millions of dollars every year, they 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.”

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—when the state does some mandate—for [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.”

By Marie Leonard
Marie came to Community Impact Newspaper in June 2011 after starting her career at a daily newspaper in East Texas. She worked as a reporter and editor for the Cy-Fair edition for nearly 5 years covering Harris County, Cy-Fair ISD, and local development and transportation news. She then moved to The Woodlands edition and covered local politics and development news in the master-planned community before being promoted to managing editor for the South Houston editions in July 2017.