Lack of school finance reform forcing districts to seek higher taxes

By the San Antonio Express-News Editorial Board

The state has little to show by the way of public school finance reform as we approach the second anniversary of a Texas Supreme Court ruling that found the system deeply flawed but constitutional.

Forgive us for being naive, but we expected state leaders to get moving quickly on improving the antiquated public school finance system after the May 2016 ruling.

Its message seemed pretty clear.

“Texas’ more than 5 million school children deserve better than serial litigation over the increasingly Daedalean system. They deserve transformation, top-to-bottom reforms that amount to more than Band-Aid on top of Band-Aid. They deserve a revamped, nonsclerotic system fit for the 21st Century,” the court said in its 100-page ruling.

In last year’s legislative sessions since then, both regular and special, lawmakers spent more time debating the merits of a bathroom bill than it did tackling the decades-old problem of school funding.

We now have another committee attempting to come up with recommendations. It convened for its first meeting in January.

If we are fortunate, substantive legislation from the 86th Legislature will result from that effort.

Reform cannot come soon enough. The students who began as first-graders in 2013 — when the latest public school finance lawsuit was filed — will be entering middle school in the fall of 2019.

The only thing the foot dragging in Austin has produced is a growing list of school districts forced to seek tax increases to balance their budgets.

Since 2006, more than 685 tax ratification elections have been held among the 1,018 Texas public school districts that impose a property tax, according to information compiled by Joe Smith, owner of, a clearinghouse of news and information for school officials.

State law caps the maintenance and operations tax rates of districts at $1.17 per $100 of property value, and requires districts that want to levy a tax rate higher than $1.04 to seek permission from voters through a tax ratification election, or TRE.

Not all TREs are successful; some school districts, including the San Antonio Independent School District, have had to go to the voters multiple times to get approval.

Smith’s data indicate 534 — slightly more than half of the school districts that collect state taxes — have been successful with their tax-hike requests. In Bexar County, in addition to SAISD, Edgewood, Somerset, Southside, Harlandale and Alamo Heights ISDs have had successful TREs.

Two others may soon join their ranks.

The South San Antonio Independent School District is considering asking taxpayers for a property tax increase this summer to counter a decline in enrollment. Without the hike, the beleaguered school district will have to cut more than $7 million from next year’s budget, school district officials said.

Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City Independent School District trustees are also considering asking voters to approve a tax ratification election. The projected $5.8 million in revenue would help counter decreased enrollment and an anticipated reduction in state funding next year.

State lawmakers like to brag they are keeping taxes down, but are they really?

The state’s share of public school funding has slowly dwindled over the last decade. In the 2016-17 school year, the state picked up only 48.4 percent of the tab, and that share it is expected to keep going lower.

There is simply no cost savings in that when the taxpayers back home have to vote to impose a higher tax on themselves to make up the difference. And any bill — as some have proposed — that would cap the tax increases a district could levy would simply be counterproductive, shortchanging students. The Legislature must fix this.

Originally published here:

ArticleJoshua Kumler