After months of fighting on school finance during the regular and special legislative sessions this year, state lawmakers left the Texas Capitol without the new system many say the state desperately needs. Instead, state leaders have put together a 13-member commission to study the issue in the interim. We sat down with Pflugerville Independent School District Superintendent Doug Killian, a longtime school administrator tapped for the commission by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Texas Tribune: What is the first concrete task that the commission should take on?
Killian: I think we should look at the current system and how it’s addressing public school funding — where some of the weaknesses are in the system. I know that property tax relief is very important to a lot of people, too, so we need to make sure that that’s considered in the process. But also some of the formula funding pieces — are they still relevant? We’ve got several items that have been in the system for a number of decades that we might need to take a look at, and we really need to make sure that we’re fiscally responsible but also student-focused on the way we fund our schools. And we need to consider both public schools and charter schools — we’re all part of the public school system — and look at all those elements and see where we’re at.
The No. 1 thing is that we need to sit down with an open mind with everybody, talking about ‘here’s where the system really is’ and ‘here’s how it treats each type of district.’ The system has got to the point now where it’s just not functioning particularly well for anybody. And we need to look at it and see what we might do to improve it.
TT: What other weaknesses would you identify?
Killian: It’s old. It’s based on an old system, in the 90s, and there’s been a lot of repairs put on the top of it over the last several decades. The funding formula worked at one point, but it doesn’t work particularly well now because it hasn’t been updated. Then, of course, efficiency and effectiveness also has to be looked at.
This is a really difficult thing, if you think about the task at hand: You’re trying to create a finance system that will address over 1,000 different schools and a couple hundred charter schools spread out all over the state.
TT: Do you think the state needs to increase the share that it contributes to fund public schools?
Killian: Probably in some manner. I think there’s a lot of ways we can skin that cat, and it’s going to take some inventiveness and innovation by the members of the committee to come up with ways to do that. There’s a lot of talk about needing property tax relief. There are inventive ways of addressing property tax relief.
TT: When we’re looking at school finance, are there particular groups of students who you think we need to be paying the most attention to?
Killian: We have a growing English-language-learner population in the state, and certainly in the funding formulas we need to be able to provide the supports they’re going to need in the classroom. Those will be very important to me.
Also our special-needs children. We’ve got the ability now to serve kids in special education without any kinds of limits being imposed on us, so those are going to be important to me as well. And then just in general, with my experience with fast-growth districts, there are a lot of costs that are borne by the community. That’s going to be very important to me as well.
And we have a large number of economically disadvantaged children in the state — to be able to properly serve them, and that the formula has to have that taken into account as well.
You know, they used to be [served well]. They could be served better.
TT: How will Hurricane Harvey's after-effects change the way you approach school finance reform?
Killian: I’m very considerate about the needs of districts that were impacted there, that we have the money and resources to help with facilities and getting those communities back on track.
I think that’s going to be a long process. There are costs with the storm that the state’s going to have to address. There has to be some money redirected that way that otherwise might have gone to solving public school finance issues. So it’s certainly complicated [our work] to some extent.
TT: How do you make sure to consider the needs of property-poor districts and rural districts throughout this process?
Killian: There are elements in the entire funding formula that take care of, or attempt to address, the needs of rural schools and property-poor schools. The reason why the state’s finance system for schools is so complex is because we have such a complex system of school districts that have different challenges and different needs. So while I appreciate people saying we need a simpler system, the simpler you make it, the less supportive it is of all the differences that are in the state.
It’s a difficult thing to try to build a finance system that meets everybody’s needs, and so it has to be complex. I think it has to look at each type of district that we have in the state and try to give support where it’s needed. For instance, you go out into West Texas, you’ve got districts that have high transportation costs — they need the support to be able to bring kids from long distances in for school. And then you have others where density is an issue and they need support for buildings and infrastructure in their district because they’re just building really quick in a fast-growth area. All those things have to be considered in a formula for it to be equitable for everybody.
TT: Do you think it’s possible to fix the school finance system without raising property taxes?
Killian: I think it might be. I think there are other ways of funding it. Obviously, just like any business, we have things we can be more efficient in, and more effective in, and maybe some reductions in some of the requirements that we have would help with that as well.
I really don’t know [how to do that] at this point. I think that’s what the importance of the committee’s work will be, is to find a way to meet everybody’s needs, because there’s so many different groups represented on this commission. I’m very positive about the opportunity and about the possibility of addressing things, but I also realize that it’s going to be a very difficult task to be all things to all people in any finance system.