Month: <span>September 2017</span>

School funding architect is now hurricane czar


It is encouraging that Gov. Greg Abbott has appointed John Sharp to be his hurricane czar, the person who will be responsible for overseeing the huge task of rebuilding Texas from the ravages of Hurricane Harvey.

Sharp is an experienced government policymaker with a reputation as a doer, not an ideologue or bombastic tweeter. He has had a long career as Legislative Budget Board examiner, legislator, Railroad Commissioner, state comptroller and now Texas A&M chancellor. Sharp also was an architect of our current, inadequate school funding system, although the ultimate failure isn’t his fault.

Sharp chaired a task force appointed by Gov. Rick Perry, his one-time political rival, that proposed the tax plan that the Legislature enacted in 2006 to temporarily lower school property taxes and replace the old state franchise tax with the under-performing margins tax as a new source of revenue for schools and other state programs.

This alleged “swap” allowed Perry to brag about “cutting” property taxes, even though the reductions were transitory and were soon wiped out as taxes continued to rise with increasing property values. The new margins tax never was intended to generate as much revenue as the franchise tax, and it has performed even worse than expected.

From the day the margins tax was enacted, business people have continuously whined about it, and the Legislature has responded with a series of cuts. This year, the legislative majority went so far as to order an eventual phaseout of the margins tax without approving a source of revenue to replace it.

Meanwhile, school property taxes continue to increase as state funding for public education continues to decline and schools remain underfunded. These include schools in Harvey’s path that now face huge recovery challenges compounded by enormous losses to their property tax bases.

Schools do their jobs everyday, not just during emergencies


The news media have carried numerous stories this week about the challenges that Hurricane Harvey has imposed on public schools and the people who work in them. Some schools were heavily damaged by winds or floodwaters and will be closed for weeks or months, displacing students and educators alike. Many school districts outside of the storm area are accepting thousands of students who can’t return to their homes or their familiar schools anytime soon.

One of these districts is Austin ISD, which, according to the Austin American-Statesman, could end up accepting several thousand refugee students from storm-battered districts. This is what we expect our educators to do, and they do it. Ironically, though, AISD’s willingness to go the extra mile to do its job amplifies the refusal of some state officials to do theirs, preferring instead to transfer the task to local taxpayers.

The American-Statesman also pointed out, in a story linked below, how Austin ISD residents are about to be clobbered again with higher property taxes, even as their school district begins welcoming evacuees. Because of rising property values and the refusal of many of our state leaders to consider significant increases in state education funding, the average homeowner in AISD will pay an additional $374 this year in school property taxes.

That will bring the average school tax bill in AISD to $4,291, and about $1,700 of that will go to the state to be redistributed among poorer school districts under the so-called Robin Hood law. Because of pricey real estate within its boundaries, AISD pays more Robin Hood money to the state – an anticipated $534 million this year — than any other school district.

This law, enacted in 1993, was designed to comply with a court order to reduce inequities between property rich and property poor districts, but it has become outdated. Austin ISD is considered wealthy because of its tax base, even though more than half of its students are from low-income families. The law is now being abused by state leaders to let local property taxpayers relieve them of their constitutional duty to adequately fund public education.

The more money local taxpayers fork over, the more state officials can brag about keeping state taxes low. Some of these same officials, notably Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, also hypocritically pretend to be concerned about the size of local property tax bills. But don’t believe them because they aren’t willing to really do something about it. I am not talking about emergency funding for hurricane recovery. I am talking about increasing everyday, basic school financial support.

Remember how Abbott and Patrick tried to con the Legislature into enacting Senate Bill 1 during the recent special session? That bill, which failed, wouldn’t have reduced property taxes in Austin ISD or any other district. It didn’t even apply to school taxes. But it would have made it more difficult for cities and counties to raise the necessary revenue to provide police and fire protection and other necessary public services.

Most local property taxes are for schools. And the only way to reduce them is to increase state education funding and change the school finance system, which Speaker Joe Straus and a majority of House members tried to do twice this year, during the regular and summer special sessions. The Senate majority, led by Dan Patrick, killed both efforts.