A bill written by state Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano has an unusual group turning out to education committee meetings: environmentalists.

Shapiro introduced Senate Bill 3 to allow districts more flexibility at the local level as they cope with reduced state funding, and it addresses several of the state laws that districts consider “unfunded mandates.” It pushes the deadline for notice of contract renewal to 10 days after the last instructional day, removes the requirement that teachers earn at least the same salary they did during 2010-11, and lifts the 10-1 student to teacher ratio for remedial classes.

For environmentalists and some concerned parents, the objectionable part is a provision that repeals a law requiring the state to develop an “integrated pest management program” for school districts that uses the least toxic methods available to control rodents, insects and weeds on campuses, and restricts their use to times when students are not there. When the measure was passed in 1990, after public worry about the effects of commonly used pesticides — which the advocacy group Beyond Pesticides says in the short term can cause asthma, dizziness and loss of concentration — Texas became one of the first states to address the issue. 

The Texas Association of School Boards and the Texas Association of School Administrators both support the bill. Dax Gonzalez, TASB’s spokesman, said lifting the pesticide management measure is not about allowing schools to “use toxic chemicals to poison children.” He said IPM was part of a series of mandates that “add a lot of extra work for districts,” saying that even without the regulation, schools balance the safety of children with their pesticides 

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Still, it’s unclear for some districts just how the repeal of the law will save money. The annual budget for pest control in San Antonio’s Northside district, the state’s fourth largest, is only $138,000 — for a total of 116 facilities. “If it's $138,000 for us, I can't imagine what it is for a small district. It's going to be minimal money,” said spokesman Pascual Gonzalez. He said that even if the bill passes with the provision intact, Northside wouldn’t be changing its practices. There was nothing "onerous" or "overbearing" about the state's current regulations, he said, adding that the district was “in complete agreement with them." According to a 2005 study from Texas A&M’s AgriLife extension, just 18 percent of 500 school districts surveyed felt that IPM practices had increased their costs. Fifty-three percent said they had reduced them.

Children and young adults are particularly vulnerable to pesticides, according to John Kepner, the project director of Beyond Pesticides, because they are still developing and their smaller body sizes mean any exposure may affect them more severely. Kepner said that IPM programs requires schools to take a “common sense approach” to dealing with pests. “The old model was you had a contract with outside company or a janitor who just did routine spraying,” he said, adding that schools with IPM instead address the root cause of pest problems before they respond with chemicals.

“It would be taking a step back for Texas to repeal their policy when they used to be a leader,” he said.

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