Facing State Cuts, Will Schools Raise Local Taxes?

Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, is the latest lawmaker to say it: A $4 billion shortfall in state financing does not have to mean teachers lose their jobs.

At the end of the legislative session, Ogden, told his colleagues in the Senate that school districts could spend their reserve money. They could “tighten their belts in other areas,” he said. Or they could pursue what he called “a good exercise in democracy” and ask voters to raise local taxes.

Across the state, school districts are considering the last option. But will the same public that sent lawmakers to Austin in November with an overwhelming no-new-taxes imperative accept paying more locally to preserve programs and jobs?

The local portion of public education financing in Texas comes from property taxes: maintenance-and-operations rates set by school boards and, if applicable, a facilities bond interest rate. In 2006, as part of an overhaul of the state’s school finance system, the Legislature voted to reduce property tax rates by a third, setting the majority of districts’ maintenance-and-operations rates at $1 per $100 of property value, with a cap of $1.17. Any district that wants to levy a tax rate higher than $1.04 must hold a “tax ratification election.”

About 20 percent of districts have already reached the $1.17 limit, according to data from the Equity Center, a school finance lobbying and research organization.

 

Most districts will probably set their budgets in August, but will begin finalizing expenses as soon know the exact details of the Legislature’s new school finance plan.

While it is too soon to tell whether the reduction in state financing will result in a wave of property tax increases, there is little doubt that some districts will try to raise their levies.

“It’s not a matter of if we are going to have a TRE — it’s a matter of when,” said Joe Smith, a former superintendent who runs texasisd.com, a clearinghouse of news and information for school officials.

Catherine Clark, an associate executive director at the Texas Association of School Boards, said her organization, which provides legal services to school boards, has received fewer inquiries about tax ratification elections than it had at this time last year. She said that districts were most likely still awaiting the final school finance plan and July property value appraisals.

A handful of districts across the state have already decided to take the plunge.

Keller Independent School District, a district with an enrollment of about 31,000 located in a suburb of Fort Worth, called an election for June 18 to raise its rates to a maximum $1.17 from $1.04. Mark Youngs, a deputy superintendent for the district, said the increase was intended “purely to replace lost state dollars.” He said the board wanted to hold the election in June so that if it failed, the district could lay off workers in time to find jobs elsewhere before the school year began.

Districts often hold elections after Labor Day “thinking that the good feelings of being back in school would increase the likelihood of passage,” Youngs said. “But then you are laying off in September and October, and districts have already staffed up.”

To successfully push a tax increase, districts usually need to demonstrate they have explored all other options. Coping with $4 billion less in state financing will help them do that. Residents of Canutillo ISD, a district of 6,000 in El Paso County, voted for a 13-cent increase on May 14, after the board tried and failed twice before in previous years.

Gustavo Reveles, a spokesman for the district, said news of the state budget cuts has shifted the mood of the community.

“It became apparent that the TRE would be more than a luxury,” he said. “It would be a necessity.”

 

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