Texas Gov. Greg Abbott this month signed into law a massive revamp of the state’s school finance mechanism that will include $6.5 billion in new spending, the culmination of years of talk about the need for sweeping changes for a system many had said was broken.
But in the days since Abbott signed the measure, local education leaders say it’s still too early to know exactly how the changes will affect area school districts, this being the middle of budget season for their administrators.
“We appreciate the efforts the legislature has made to try to fix school financing,” said Melissa Tortorici, spokeswoman for Texas City Independent School District. “At this point, it’s still too early to tell how it will really impact Texas City ISD. School financing is very complex and there are templates the districts use to determine revenues. The templates are still undergoing changes, so as of now, we still do not have a solid grasp on the estimated revenues.”
Administrators with Dickinson echoed their neighbor’s feelings.
The district’s board of trustees is working on a budget for the 2019-2020 school year and administrators will have a better picture of what to expect once it’s approved at the end of August, said Tammy Dowdy, spokeswoman for the Dickinson.
The signature piece of school finance legislation, Texas House Bill 3, will add about $11.6 billion in funding, of which $6.5 billion will go toward new public education funding and another $5.1 billion to lower property tax bills, according to reports. The bill also provides funding for full-day prekindergarten for eligible 4-year-olds and reduces the amount school districts must pay through the state’s recapture program.
“We are grateful that Gov. Abbott and our state legislature understand the need for all schools to receive additional funding for education, as well as safety, security and mental health resources,” said Leigh Wall, superintendent for Santa Fe Independent School District.
The state’s so-called Robin Hood funding program, or recapture program, “recaptures” local property tax revenue and sends it to other districts. Recapture is part of state legislation created in 1993. Under the law, tax revenue for maintenance and operation from property-wealthy school districts, such as Galveston and Texas City, is taken and distributed to property-poor school districts.
Galveston in its 2018-2019 budget allocated more than $26 million for recapture payments, documents show.
And Texas City budgeted about $1.3 million for recapture, documents show.
Administrators in both districts weren’t yet sure exactly how much would change, but Galveston Superintendent Kelli Moulton said it wouldn’t add any funding to school districts, but would instead compress tax rates.
For Galveston, the maintenance and operations rate would decrease from $1.06 per $100 of valuation to 99 cents per $100 valuation, Moulton said.
But while state legislators are singing the bill’s praises, local education leaders were more measured in assessing the bill in the early going.
“I’m looking at it with guarded optimism,” said Greg Smith, superintendent for Clear Creek Independent School District. “I don’t have much to say about whether it’s great or poor legislation. You hate to be too optimistic, when you don’t know what you don’t know.”
District administrators are currently awaiting formulas for the new legislation and should have something by the July board meeting, though early estimates show the new funding might add $11 million to the 2019-2020 budget and as much as $13 million in 2020-2021, Smith said.
But while any increase is nice, that should be understood in context that the district also will have to consider how to pay for the new costs that come with opening a new elementary school and paying for other improvements, Smith said.
“There are just a lot of needs,” Smith said.
Clear Creek’s total projected budget expenditures for the 2018-2019 school year were about $589.5 million, documents show.
Before the new funding legislation, more and more school boards across the county have been forced to adopt deficit budgets in recent years as they struggle with myriad issues.