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School districts beg Senate panel to keep expiring state aid program

The Senate Education Committee is considering extending a decade-old state aid program for small, vulnerable school districts that depend on it for vital operations. The program is set to expire in September.

Sen. Lois Kolkhorst proposed a bill that would extend a state aid program to help struggling school districts that say they depend on it.

Bobby Easterling rattled off a list of the cuts his West Texas school district would have to make if the state lets a controversial state aid program expire in September.

Jim Ned CISD administrators would have to fire 20 teachers, get rid of 80 percent of aides and other support staff, or simply shut off its water and gas without the $1 million it receives from the program, the superintendent told the Senate Education Committee Tuesday morning.

Easterling joined a long line of administrators in supporting Sen. Lois Kolkhorst's Senate Bill 419, which would extend Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction, or ASATR, to 2023. The program is part of a larger discussion in both chambers of the Legislature this year about how, or whether, to reform a beleaguered school finance system to help the most vulnerable schools.

"You're one of the districts we're looking to help," Senate Education Chairman Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, told Easterling Tuesday.

When the Texas Supreme Court ruled the school finance system unconstitutional in 2005, the Legislature responded by cutting local property tax rates by a third. To make up the difference in revenue for those school districts, legislators created ASATR, which guaranteed districts the same amount of funding as they received in the 2005-06 school year.

Kolkhorst said she proposed the bill to help struggling school districts, not those for which the extra money represents a "luxury." Keeping the program would cost the state $400 million over the next two years, according to the Legislative Budget Board. That money is not currently in the proposed budget the Senate voted out last month — a major barrier for passage.

Former legislator Paul Colbert, testifying as a school finance expert, said Tuesday that some districts that have fluctuating property values saw those values peak in 2006, then got to stay at a higher level of funding for the past decade. "ASATR is not related to cost. It's based on a snapshot" of that school year, he said.

Colbert said the majority of school districts have been subsidizing a smaller group still receiving money from the program. That small group of districts, which does not need ASATR funding to survive, "won the lottery," he said.

He said legislators should focus on overhauling a patchwork school finance formula that negatively affects most districts, instead of keeping a state aid program that helps a few.

The House is set to discuss a bill to revamp the school finance system Wednesday.

Senators on the committee agreed that they were most concerned with the districts facing a sudden decrease in state funding if the program isn't extended.

But a few superintendents said it isn't that simple. Hallettsville ISD's property values have fluctuated over time with the up-and-down oil and gas industry, and the amount it receives from the program has also fluctuated — from $53,000 in 2014 to $1.7 million this year.

"We thought we could see the light at the end of the tunnel," said Superintendent Jo Ann Bludau, explaining how she thought the district would no longer need ASATR after 2014. "The most frustrating part as a superintendent is that I don't control the [property] values. I can control a lot of other things. I can control spending, but I cannot control the values."

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • As lawmakers debate possible reforms to the school finance system this week, they might decide whether to continue offering extra money to districts like Texas City ISD, which last year was forced to annex a struggling district next to it. 
  • The House Public Education Committee voted 10-1 to approve Chairman Dan Huberty's school finance bill, which would mean gains for most, but major losses for some.

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