City entities in Richardson place school finance reform at top of legislative priorities list

School finance reform is at top of mind for Richardson stakeholders as the 86th legislative session gets underway in Austin.

School finance reform is at top of mind for Richardson stakeholders as the 86th legislative session gets underway in Austin.

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At a legislative session where school finance is a top priority, stakeholders in Richardson ISD are committed to ensuring the district’s needs are met.


The ideal outcome would be for the state to pony up 50 percent of RISD’s budget, Chief Government Affairs Officer Liz Morse said. Roughly 30 percent of RISD’s funding was provided by the state in 2018, and by 2023, that share will drop to 15 percent, according to district documents.


“We are determining our own fate by what we invest in public education,” Morse said.


Leading up to the Jan. 8 launch of the session, officials from the city, the chamber of commerce, UT Dallas and RISD met often with local representatives to communicate their list of priorities. Over the next five months, these same people will keep close tabs on bills filed and opportunities to testify before legislative committees.


Tackling school finance means the Legislature will also have to deal with skyrocketing property taxes. The governor has proposed a 2.5 percent property tax revenue growth cap, but some North Texas leaders think that solution would do more harm than good.


“We are all for property tax reform, but we don’t think that capping and really tying the hands of our cities, counties and community college districts is the way to achieve that,” said Chris Wallace, president and CEO of the North Texas Commission, a public-private partnership dedicated to advancing the prosperity of the region.


There are ways to enhance revenue without increasing taxes, Richardson Chamber of Commerce president Bill Sproull said. Still, Sproull fears a solution that becomes a ruse for property tax relief at the expense of funding public schools.


“If the taxpayer gets a reduction, hallelujah, but it will be pennywise and pound-foolish if it results in no new taxes for the public education system,” he said.



‘BOOKS NOT BATHROOMS’


At a Dec. 10 luncheon hosted by the chamber, Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, acknowledged the razor-thin margin by which some Republicans snagged their midterm victories.


“Elections are clarifying moments, and Republicans got a wake-up call [in November],” Leach said.


He said he and his colleagues intend to avoid divisive issues that derailed the last session and instead focus on “books not bathrooms.”


Since November, Democrats and Republicans have submitted hundreds of bills related to school finance.


Proposals include requiring the state to guarantee a set amount of money; updating the funding formulas to account for inflation and other variables; and allowing districts to keep a portion of local tax revenue that recaptured and sent back to the state to fund poorer districts.



SCHOOL DISTRICTS BAND TOGETHER


While RISD’s financial situation is not as dire as others, all districts are working together to issue a call for more funding, Morse said.


For comparison, RISD’s recapture payment is about $6 million for the 2018-19 school year. Neighboring Plano ISD will pay more than $200 million.


The decline of the state’s share of public school funding is outlined in an October report published by the Legislative Budget Board titled “Fiscal Size-Up 2018-19 Biennium.”


“The dirty little secret is that state budget writers have been writing the budgets on the backs of local taxpayers,” Sproull said.


A chart within the 647-page report chronicles the increased burden placed on local taxpayers to support public schools. It also outlines the decline of per-pupil funding, even as “current state leaders say the Legislature is putting more money into education than ever before,” Morse said.


School district employees say they struggle to justify their difficult financial position in an era of rising property values. This dilemma is at the heart of RISD’s call for “taxparency.”


A taxparency bill filed by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, would require a property tax bill to show how much of a taxpayer’s dollar is staying in the district and how much is being sent to the state, Morse said.



FOOTING THE BILL


In determining how much the state can kick in, Morse said there is one question on everyone’s mind.


“The big, huge elephant in the room is: Where are they going to get more dollars?” she said.


A proposal to the state’s school finance committee authored by Nicole Conley Johnson, chief financial officer for Austin ISD—Texas’ No. 1 contributor to recapture—lists 13 ways to inject more money into public education. Some would impose no new taxes.


Ideas include using contingency funds, increasing the motor fuel tax, eliminating tax exemptions for certain businesses and imposing a 1 percent local option sales tax.



PROTECTING ‘SWIM LANES’


Richardson Mayor Paul Voelker said the proposed limits to property tax revenue are indicative of a larger attempt to erode a city’s ability to self-govern.


“I believe heavily in swim lanes,” he said. “I tell representatives across all groups that I understand some swim lanes are bigger than others, and there are things in one swim lane that could cause a wake that affects the others. What I don’t like is when instead of creating a wake, you try to narrow my swim lane.”


Unfunded mandates are another way the state ties the hands of city leaders, Voelker said. Too often cities are forced to turn to local taxpayers to pay for costly new programs required by the state.


Abbott’s bill would eliminate the practice of unfunded mandates. But if his proposal also limits a city’s ability to attract businesses with tax incentives, Richardson’s livelihood could take a hit.


“Are they going to kill the goose that laid the golden egg?” Voelker said. “Today the city carries the most water around economic development in terms of incentives we are able to offer.”


The concern is real. Back in 2006, the Legislature cut several popular tax exemptions to fund school finance reform, including the highly valued research and development tax credit, Sproull said.


Up for reauthorization this session is a portion of local government code that allows cities to offer tax abatements. In Richardson, abatement deals have been used to clinch corporate anchors, such as Texas Instruments and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas.

By Olivia Lueckemeyer
Olivia Lueckemeyer graduated in 2013 from Loyola University New Orleans with a degree in journalism. She joined Community Impact Newspaper in October 2016 as reporter for the Southwest Austin edition before her promotion to editor in March 2017. In July 2018 she returned home to the Dallas area and became editor of the Richardson edition.


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