Dis­tricts: In­crease ba­sic per-pupil funds this ses­sion

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By Julie Chang jchang@states­man.com

Ac­knowl­edg­ing that an over­haul of the state’s trou­bled school fi­nance sys­tem won’t hap­pen by the end of the leg­isla­tive ses­sion, pub­lic school ad­vo­cates are push­ing law­mak­ers to patch up gap­ing holes in the sys­tem for now.

“The chances of us fix­ing it all right now are pretty small. Some of th­ese changes ... what we’re try­ing to do is a two-tothree-ses­sion fix. I don’t think we’re go­ing to pro­pose a school fi­nance bill that changes your world by next Septem­ber,” said state Rep. Ken King, R-Cana­dian, dur­ing Tues­day’s House Pub­lic Ed­u­ca­tion Com­mit­tee hear­ing.

Heed­ing law­mak­ers’ call for tem­po­rary fixes, school dis­trict of­fi­cials pitched ideas that ranged from in­creas­ing fund­ing to prekinder­garten and trans­porta­tion to up­dat­ing cer­tain parts of the out­dated fund­ing for­mula. The most pop­u­lar so­lu­tion from school dis­tricts was in­creas­ing the ba­sic amount of money that they re­ceive per stu­dent.

It is the “quickest and eas­i­est so­lu­tion ... and floats all boats,” said Kevin Brown, su­per­in­ten­dent of Alamo Heights school dis­trict.

Nei­ther of the House and Se­nate bud­get pro­pos­als in­crease the ba­sic al­lot­ment, which is set at $5,140 per stu­dent. How­ever, the House’s bud­get has an ex­tra $1.5 bil­lion set aside that could be used to pay for an in­crease in the ba­sic al­lot­ment.

Based on how the state’s com­pli­cated fund­ing for­mula is set up, in­creas­ing the ba­sic al­lot­ment would de­crease the amount of money school dis­tricts would pay un­der the sys­tem known as Robin Hood. School dis­tricts with high prop­erty wealth give a por­tion of their rev­enue back to the state — also called re­cap- ture pay­ments — to be re­dis­tributed to school dis­tricts with lower prop­erty wealth. Of­fi­cials from school dis­tricts who are sub­ject to th­ese pay­ments — an es­ti­mated 249 dis­tricts this year — have com­plained that the pay­ments they’re making are dis­pro­por­tion­ately large be­cause many of their stu­dents are poor and aren’t na­tive English speak­ers and need ex­tra ser­vices.

The Austin school dis­trict pays the most in Robin Hood pay­ments — $406 mil­lion ex­pected this school year, nearly a third of the dis­trict’s $1.3 bil­lion bud­get. Ni­cole Conley John­son, chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer with the Austin school dis­trict, said that if the dis­trict were not forced to pay into Robin Hood, the dis­trict could drop the tax rate by 35 cents, sav­ing the av­er­age home owner $1,400 in prop­erty tax per year.

“Re­cap­ture has sky­rock­eted,” Conley John­son said.

School dis­tricts that are sub­ject to Robin Hood pay­ments do not re­ceive fund­ing to pro­vide trans­porta­tion for stu­dents. Conley John­son said that the school dis­tricts even have to pay for high­way tolls.

In­creas­ing the ba­sic al­lot­ment would also lessen the blow to about 200 school dis­tricts that are slated to lose an es­ti­mated $300 mil­lion in so-called hold-harm­less fund­ing; that fund­ing has been given to more than 1,000 school dis­tricts since 2006 when the state tried to com­pen­sate for a de­ci­sion to de­crease prop­erty tax rates by a third. Some ru­ral school dis­tricts asked Tues­day for a con­tin­u­a­tion of the hold-harm­less fund­ing.

Some school dis­trict of­fi­cials also asked that they re­ceive per-stu­dent fund­ing for their prekinder­garten stu­dents who at­tend school full day. Cur­rently, the state only funds half-day prekinder­garten.

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