Who Will Be Blamed for Big Cuts in School Funding?

Governor Rick Perry book signing at the Dell Diamond
Governor Rick Perry book signing at the Dell Diamond

There will be blood. It’s undeniable, especially when the governor goes out of his way to say that he doesn’t have any on his hands.

Rick Perry, watching over a legislative session that threatens (at this point) to cut $9.3 billion or more from state spending on public education, said this week that it’s not the state’s fault if any public school teachers lose their jobs. “The lieutenant governor, the speaker and their colleagues aren’t going to hire or fire one teacher, as best I can tell,” he said. “That is a local decision that will be made at the local districts.”

House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, said a day later that the governor is “technically correct,” in that the teachers don’t work directly for the state and the state won’t be doing the firing. They may be cutting off the food supply to the kitchen, but it’s the cooks who decide which diners will be fed.

All this talk preceded a weekend education rally at the state Capitol, and it accompanies a rising chorus from Republican lawmakers who think the current budget-balancing proposals cut too deeply into education and health and human services.

Relocating the blame isn’t going to be an easy sales job. The school districts are simultaneously losing money from both of their main sources of revenue — state financing and revenue from local property taxes. And while many have money in the bank, their immediate financial futures aren’t promising. Some have responded by declaring “financial exigency,” a way of saying they’ve got budgets so tight they need to lay some people off. Once that’s been declared, a district can send notices to employees who won’t be employees after the current school year. Others are marshaling the arguments for tax increases.

 

Local property values around the state dropped 1.8 percent last year. The state comptroller estimates it will drop 2.23 percent this year and then rise 0.52 percent next year. That’s the base against which the school districts levy taxes, and the biggest source of non-state funding for the schools. Those numbers are bigger than they look.

The comptroller initially estimated a drop of 3.47 percent this year — reducing that to 2.23 percent is a swing of around $400 million in education money. In the 2008-09 school year, Texas school districts got 47.1 percent of their money from local sources and 42.9 percent from the state (the rest was federal money), according to the Texas Education Agency.

This happens from time to time, and the state’s financing formulas compensate for it. When a district’s local property tax revenues drop, state aid to that district rises to smooth out the dip. But with state aid dropping, districts that are also losing property value, and the corresponding tax income, could be forced to choose between cutting people and programs or raising local school property taxes.

The money, in education as in lots of large enterprises, is in the people, and more than half are either teachers (50.5 percent) or educational aides (9.8 percent). The rest are administrators, professional support and the biggest nonteaching group, auxiliary staff (27 percent). Those are the body counts, but they don’t match up with the dollar amounts: Teachers get 61 percent of the total salary pile, and education aides get 4.5 percent. The auxiliary staff gets 15 percent, and the remaining 19.5 percent is split among administrators and support staff.

By sheer numbers, you can cut without getting into the teaching ranks, but with almost two-thirds of the payroll going to teachers and their aides, the state and local budgeteers might be forced into the classrooms.

It leaves an agitated taxpayer or parent (or both) in a quandary. In Texas’ split system, an awkward balance of state and local control and financing, it’s difficult to get an answer to the simplest question: Who’s to blame?

 

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.