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VISD could lose millions after state cuts

By ERICA RODRIGUEZ
April 10, 2011 at 11 p.m.
Updated April 9, 2011 at 11:10 p.m.


SCHOOL FINANCE 101

The Texas school finance system uses a two-tier system to fund schools.

Most schools get their money from a target revenue system, which guarantees different amounts of funding for schools with similar educational needs.

The system has a history of lawsuits, which date back to 1968. The most recent lawsuit, West Orange Cove ISD vs. Neeley, ended with a property tax relief initiative in 2006. The state mandated school districts cut their maintenance and operation tax rates by one-third, then froze those rates.

SOURCE: Texas Taxpayers and Research Association

TEXAS EDUCATION AT A GLANCE

Texas has more school districts than any other state in the country, with 1,235 public and charter districts.

Public schools employ more than 600,000 staff, more than any other state in the nation.

The state ranks 37th in the nation for freshmen graduation rates as of 2007.

Texas students' SAT test scores rank the 46th lowest in the nation.

Funding for the Texas school system uses about 33 percent of state funding, 45 percent of local property taxes and 22 percent from federal sources. Federal funding includes stimulus funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Those funds will not be available for the 2011-12 school year.

SOURCE: Texas Taxpayers and Research Association

Estimates of how the recently passed House Bill 1 could affect the Victoria school district vary from $5.6 million to $9.7 million, according to data from school finance experts.

The bill cuts about $6.6 billion statewide from this year's budgeted education expenses.

In Victoria, impact estimates are so skewed, Superintendent Bob Moore said he is hesitant to make drastic budget-saving changes.

"It's all over the wall in terms in what the projections are," he said. "I haven't seen a thing yet that I want to go to our school board and say, 'We need to reduce 100 people.'"

The district instead focused on ways to save money, Moore said. The district saved about $88,000 of electricity costs by asking teachers to remove extra electronics from their classrooms earlier this year and half of that will actually be returned for campuses to spend. The district also cut 77 staff positions in the past five years, but will renew all recommended employee contracts this year, including first-year teachers.

Although Moore said the district is not in a salary freeze, the question of raises made him laugh out loud.

About 160 staff members leave the district every year, and Moore said he plans to keep those positions open to help deal with whatever the cuts may be.

"If they say, 'You have to come up with $2 million or you have to come up with $10 million,' then that gives us flexibility," he said.

The district, which has roughly 13,600 students, spends about $7,000 per pupil, according to data from a state comptroller report.

The state, however, only contributes about $4,959 to cover the cost of educating one VISD student, according to information from the Texas Education Agency. That amount varies from district to district, which is the subject of much debate among administrators.

"Overall, it really makes no sense," Moore said.

School administrators say school finance issues got really hairy in 2006 when the legislature cut the school districts' tax rates by one-third. The result was what's known as the target revenue system, which gives districts a certain amount of money to make up for that tax cut.

"The bottom line is, we've been living with revenue per kid that was established in '05-'06," said Edna superintendent Bob Wells, who's been following the issue closely. "Up until whatever the Legislature does now, there's been no way to get more revenue per kid."

The problem was compounded because the state used federal stimulus funds - which end this year - to make up for money that should have been sent to schools.

"Whatever factors were affecting the district at that time, that influences the target revenue that they have today," said Helen Daniels, director of state funding at the Texas Education Agency.

Daniels said the House bill figures do not represent the final funding amounts schools will receive, so the group has not advised school districts on how to plan for cuts. On top of that, formulas that determine school funding rates could still be worked out during special meetings even after the the Legislature has adjourned.

"If they don't have the budget by the end of this session, they may have a special session," she said.

Victoria's 2011-12 budget is approved in August by the school board, so the reworking of the formulas at the 11th hour makes planning even more difficult.

"We know there's going to be cuts," said Diane Boyett, district communication specialist. "We just don't know how they're going to be implemented."

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