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School districts not thrilled with state budget

By Bob Buckel | Published Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Texas Legislature has ended its regular session, and the state budget is set for the next two years, pending a signature from Gov. Rick Perry.

Two years ago, school districts were scrambling to make cuts – some laying off teachers and axing programs – after legislators took $5.4 million out of school funding to help make up for a revenue shortfall at the height of the economic downturn.

This time, the state’s economic picture looked much better.

For Texas’ school districts, that means the budget picture looks better, too. But at least in Wise County, it’s still a long way from where it was before the cuts.

Budget numbers released this week show most area districts regaining about $100 per student next year (FY 2014) and about $150 per student the following year (FY 2015).

Decatur ISD, with 3,776 students, gets a $114 per student bump next year and a $164 per student increase the following year. Superintendent Rod Townsend is less than overwhelmed.

“We lost $3.7 million two years ago and we’re getting $850,000 back,” he said. “That’s not a very good tradeoff.”

Bridgeport ISD, with just under 3,000 students, is slated to get $296,346 more in fiscal 2014 than it would get under the current funding formula, and $302,326 more in fiscal 2015.

“Last session, we lost $1 million the first year and $1.6 million the second year,” said BISD superintendent Eddie Bland. “We lost a total of $2.6 million, and they’re putting back not quite 25 percent of what was taken away.

“I’m not going to scream and throw it back at them, but it’s a long ways from where we were.”

Percentage-wise, Alvord fares better than anyone else in Wise County, getting a 4.45 percent boost in 2014 and a 6.72 percent bump in 2015. But Superintendent Bill Branum is proceeding with caution.

“We are looking closely at projections at this time but still are not exactly sure what the final analysis will indicate,” he said. “I plan on giving the board an update soon with the best projections we can make at this time. It does appear that we will receive some increase in state revenues next year.”

Numbers released by the office of Rep. Jim Pitts show Alvord ISD picking up $297,424 next year and $400,954 the following year. That translates into $260 per student in 2014 and $390 per student in 2015.

But in the second year, districts will be required to start paying 1.5 percent of payroll for teacher retirement. The funding increase for that year includes a one-time $330 million transition grant.

Boyd superintendent Ted West said his district’s “very slim increase” is at least an improvement from the search for cuts two years ago.

Boyd ISD, with 1,579 students, looks to gain $113 per student next year and $160 per student in 2015 – a total of $178,242 and $181,394 in the two budget periods.

“At least it’s going up, not down,” West said. “It’s not a large impact.

“We’re mindful of it and keep an extremely watchful eye on it, but it’s not going to change our staffing or other plans,” West said.

Boyd avoided layoffs two years ago, but did have some positions they left unfilled after employees retired or left. Based on what he’s seen, West said there are no plans to restore those positions.

“Compared to what we’ve been dealing with the last couple of years, it’s a plus,” he said. “At least it’s not negative.”

Other districts in the county will see gains from less than 2 percent in 2014 to less than 3 percent in 2015.

Bland said it appears the legislature tried to address inequities in the finance system when they restored the funds. Townsend agrees.

“It is absolutely an equity issue,” the Decatur school boss said. “You can see that by the way they changed the formulas.”

Bland said the formula change relates to the “albatross” of the school finance lawsuit that is currently before the Texas Supreme Court.

“I suspect the state may ask the Supreme Court to redirect that back to the district court and use these figures, to see if they won’t accept this as a little more equity,” he said. “They used one set of formulas to take away the $5.4 billion and a different set of formulas to put it back.

“When they started putting it back, they crafted it so that those who had less to start with got more back.”

Given the Wise County numbers, it’s obvious some districts are benefiting more, he said.

“When you cut $5.4 billion and put back $3.4 billion, and most of us here in Wise County are getting back 25 percent or less of what we lost, somewhere there are districts that had a lot less revenue per student than we had who are getting more back than they lost,” he said. “I’m not opposed to that because the system is very inequitable right now.”

Bland said his staff is in the budgeting process, but they are working “more on the expense side” than the revenue side, just trying not to exceed the state’s projections.

“We’re happy,” he said. “Anytime they fund public education I’m good with it. It’s a tough job, and if you spend any time down there, you find out how difficult it is.”

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