As the 86th Texas legislative session prepares to convene Jan. 8, one issue dominates the rest for local school districts: school finance.

Regardless of their size, demographics, or wealth, San Antonio school districts want to see changes in the way Texas public schools are funded.

I think schools across the state really feel the pinch of the budget cuts that were made in 2011, and they are also hurting from a lot of the unfunded mandates where they pretty much every session get asked to do more but with not sufficient additional funding,” said Kevin Brown, executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators.

In preparation for lawmakers’ return to Austin, select local districts pass legislative agendas outlining changes they would like to see and supporting proposed initiatives. These documents contain everything from specific requests for policy alterations to sweeping asks intended to communicate a broad stance.

Most of Northside Independent School District’s legislative agenda is devoted to school finance, outlining 14 suggestions related to funding schools. The district supports legislation that would tie funding weights for students who are economically disadvantaged or have special needs to the actual cost of their education; legislation that improves funding for facilities; and policies that would allow locally elected trustees to set maintenance and operations tax rates without voter approval.

Northside Superintendent Brian Woods said he could have identified 10 more priority points in the area of school finance, but refrained because it is important to identify highlights for legislators so they can focus their efforts.

Edgewood ISD Director of Strategic Partnerships Marisa Perez-Diaz approached her district’s legislative agenda with a similar perspective.

“You need to be specific in your asks,” Perez-Diaz said. “It is a lot easier to possibly accomplish something if it is incremental.”

Collaboration with other school districts could also be a potential pathway to success, she said. If Edgewood sends a list of 10 priorities to State Reps. Ina Minjarez and Justin Rodriguez,  San Antonio Democrats who represent Edgewood and Northside ISDs, and Northside sends a list of different priorities, it could be hard for the legislators to reconcile the lists and choose an area of focus.

That’s why Edgewood’s school finance requests are similar to other school districts’ priorities: The district opposes unfunded mandates from the state and opposes the use of any voucher system that would divert money away from public schools.

North East ISD asked for all current revenue dedicated to education to be invested without a reduction in state support and for the funding formulas to adjust to changes in the cost of education and students’ needs.

As a property-rich district that doesn’t yet have to make recapture payments to the state, NEISD is particularly clued into the workings of the recapture system.

Recapture, commonly referred to as the “Robin Hood” system, mandates that once districts with high property values collect a certain level of property tax revenue, they have to send some of the money back to the state to be redistributed to districts that are property-poor.

NEISD asked the state to study the growth of recapture payments – and the number of districts subject to them – and determine whether there is a need for a cap. Alamo Heights ISD is the only district in San Antonio now subject to recapture, and has been sending payments to the state for several years. NEISD has yet to start sending payments to Austin, although it is estimated the district could owe more than $20 million by 2020-21.

A North East Independent School District bus Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“We just want to ask that we study where we are as a state, so we don’t rely on it as a funding mechanism that continues to grow,” said Deb Caldwell, NEISD’s director of government relations and grant development.

In San Antonio ISD’s agenda, the district outlined 12 points that it would like to see incorporated in the school finance discussion, including finding a new source of revenue to fund schools. As the school finance system currently stands, local property tax dollars comprise a significant portion of school district revenue. If property values go up over time, property tax bills also increase, but the extra money may not stay within a school district.

Therefore, SAISD recommends the state find a “new, stable revenue source to help buy down property taxes as part of comprehensive school finance reform.”

SAISD also seeks an increase in the amount of money allotted per student, additional money for the highest-poverty school districts in the state, and an enrollment-based funding system that moves away from the current system, which funds based on average daily attendance.

Accountability system

Legislative agendas also tackled the controversial accountability system, which assigns campuses and districts a number score that correlates to a letter grade. Before the rollout of the accountability scores in August, Texas Education Agency officials made it clear that this system will be in place for the next few years.

Of the San Antonio districts that passed a legislative agenda, only Northside went as far as urging repeal of the A-F system. San Antonio’s other districts asked for adjustments to the system.

North East requested lawmakers adjust the accountability system to “ensure it accurately reflects the performance of districts and schools without the use of forced failures or an over-reliance on standardized tests.”

The mention of forced failure refers to a rule that if a campus scores an F in three of four grading categories, it will receive a failing grade overall. This rule caused West Avenue Elementary, one of NEISD’s campuses, to get an automatic failing grade.

San Antonio ISD also requested the TEA finalize the accountability rules prior to Sept. 30 of a school year.

“This past school year, the accountability manual was not finalized until after the completion of the school year,” SAISD’s legislative agenda states. “That reality is not acceptable for the staff to understand what targets they should be aiming towards.”

School safety, innovation, and charter school expansion

After a rash of school shootings forced debate over the best way to ensure school safety, education officials anticipate some of the legislative session will be devoted to improving physical security elements and providing more mental health support. San Antonio’s districts are asking that any decisions made about school safety take local control into consideration.

“We are asking for flexibility. That is a tough ask in that it is easy for a lawmaker to dictate, ‘Here is a grant for metal detectors,’” Caldwell said. “It is harder to say, ‘Here is a pot of money, you do what you need to do.’ … No two districts in the state are going to have the same [security] needs.”

SAISD also asked that decisions about arming teachers, which can be done through two state-approved avenues, continue to be made locally.

Both Edgewood and SAISD also asked the state to provide further support for innovative education options under Senate Bill 1882, a law passed in the 2017 legislative session. The law provides greater funding to districts that enter into partnerships with open-enrollment charter schools, nonprofits, institutions of higher education, and governmental entities to operate campuses.

The Edgewood ISD school board.
Edgewood ISD’s board meets in February 2018. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

SAISD employed provisions of the bill at Stewart Elementary last school year and at four other campuses. Edgewood doesn’t currently operate any campuses under the 1882 law. Both districts ask lawmakers to ensure that a funding stream continues for the bill and the districts that take advantage of it.

The agendas of Northside and North East both address charter school expansion. Northside asks the state to hold open-enrollment charter schools to the same standards of transparency as traditional public districts and requests that the expansion of existing charter schools be aligned to the charter authorization process for new charter schools.

NEISD also addressed the charter expansion process, asking the state to provide adequate notice about charter school expansion to “prevent an oversaturation of charter schools in particular geographic areas.” The district reasons that local taxpayers and districts should be able to give input on the expansion process.

The legislative session starts Jan. 8 and will last 140 days. Each district said it plans to keep tabs on education-related bills and keep parents informed about what’s happening in Austin.

“Our message would be ‘Stay tuned,’ because some of these issues are going to be important to schools, and we would love for [parents and families] to be supportive of our position,” Woods said. “It is really just hard to prepare folks ahead of time, because you can’t always tell what is going to dominate the conversation, or even what issue group is going to dominate.”

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.