Education Funding May Require Special Session
Lawmakers at impasse over school finance
In most years around mid-May, independent school districts around the state are refining their draft budgets for the upcoming school year. This year, they're in limbo. No one knows how much the state will spend on education or how it will slice up the funding, and there's persistent talk that an education-focused special legislative session will be required just to work out the basics. With no news being bad news, Austin ISD school board President Mark Williams said, "I'd like to say I'm holding out remote hope, but it is appearing bleaker by the day and by the hour."
The reality is that while districts like AISD discuss layoffs, cost savings, and office closures, school officials do not know how much money they need to save. Until the Lege completes its deliberations, they're shooting in the dark. And unfortunately, no one knows if those deliberations will be completed before the session ends at midnight on May 30. House Public Education Committee Chair Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, said lawmakers can technically wait until Sept. 1 – budget deadline day for school districts – to set state spending levels and rules. With little more than a week of the regular session left, all signs point to a dedicated school finance special session. "The closer we get to Friday without a resolution," said Eissler, "the more we lean towards it."
The logjam isn't caused by one or two minor sticking points, but by major differences between the House and Senate draft budgets. When the current fiscal biennium ends Aug. 31, Texas is expected to have spent $54 billion on public education. The Senate wants to add a half-billion to that total, while the House aims to cut $5 billion. With rising enrollment and an increase in high-needs kids statewide, neither bill comes close to covering actual costs. Those numbers are now being thrashed out in the budget conference committee, but the divide is so big that there's serious talk in both chambers of sending the budget back to the floor without Article III – the public and higher ed budgets – then fixing those parts later. Austin Democratic Rep. Mark Strama, who sits with Eissler on the House Public Education Committee, said the "large question of how big is the pie for public ed won't be resolved before a special session." Nor, he warned, will the issue of how that pie will be sliced up.
That slicing depends on three bills, starting with formula funding reform in Senate Bill 22. It would not add any extra money to the equation but would stretch the existing funds out over the next two years: a small consolation to school districts, but an important change for the state's obligations. If it does not pass or if extra money is not found, House Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, has warned that the state will burn through all its education dollars for the next two years in early 2013. If that's not bad enough, two equally pivotal and controversial school finance bills are similarly stuck in legislative limbo. Both would impact classrooms, but they at least give districts some leeway to patch their budgets together for the next two years. With the two-day unpaid furloughs allowed by SB 12, AISD could cut spending by $4.2 million; House Bill 400's changes to the pupil-teacher ratio for kindergarten through fourth grade would cut costs by another $9.8 million. However, SB 12 has not reached the Senate floor yet, while HB 400 fell foul of the unforgiving House calendar and is dead. So now HB 400 author Eissler is pinning his hopes on getting at least some of these contract reforms added onto SB 1811 – the budget-stabilizing fiscal matters bill. He said, "A lot of superintendents are still counting on the provisions of this bill, and we still have time."
However, time is what school districts do not have. Most school districts have already made major changes – like the 1,153-staff layoff approved by the AISD board of trustees on March 28 (see "Final Blow: AISD Approves Job Cuts," April 1) – on almost blind faith that the changes would help the situation. Back in January, the best-case scenario for AISD was a $40 million cut, and the worst was $182 million. The situation is not much clearer now. On May 9, AISD trustees informed the Citizens Budget Review Committee that it may as well not meet through the summer as there will probably be little to discuss. The ambiguity also puts any discussion of a tax ratification election on hold. Since the district doesn't know whether the state is going to completely overhaul the "Robin Hood" recapture system, there is little stomach among board members or major pressure groups like the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce to seek a property tax rate change from voters. Strama warned, "It's very possible that school districts may have to wait until July or August before knowing how much money they're going to get from the state of Texas for education."
What else is happening in LegeLand? Voter ID got the nod, as did a bill exempting "Romeo and Juliet" offenders from being included in the sex offender registry. For more on these and other stories of the 82nd Legislature, see austinchronicle.com/legeland.