Monday, June 20, 2005

School Leaders Fret Over Veto

Governor Perry is going for broke by calling a special session in order to fix school finance—which is to begin tomorrow, by the way. This summer's session will be a real test of everybody's willingness to really address Judge Dietz' call for equity in school funding. -Angela

Simone Sebastian
Express-News Staff Writer / 06/20/2005

Facing the start of a school year without state funding, some school district leaders are blasting Gov. Rick Perry's decision to veto lawmakers' $33.6 billion education budget, a move they say could prevent schools from opening on time. But others said the governor's move to force lawmakers to reform the state's school funding system is long overdue.

"It's risky, no doubt about it," said San Antonio School District Superintendent Rubén Olivárez. "But if you look at the (Legislature's) track record, they've been complete failures. This is the governor's last effort to force a consensus."

Olivárez said there is a real chance that the district's schools won't open in August if lawmakers fail to agree on a way to reform school funding.

"We don't have a backup plan," he said.

Unsuccessful efforts to pass a school funding reform bill have marred the Legislature's past two regular sessions and one special session. A state district judge declared the current school funding system unconstitutional because of its heavy reliance on local property taxes.

Northside Superintendent John Folks disagreed with the governor's approach to the issue, saying he doesn't believe lawmakers can fix the problem in two months.

"They've been at this a year and a half and haven't solved it," Folks said. "To hold schools hostage, it's penalizing schools because legislators haven't solved the problem."

Many school districts, including all of those in Bexar County, have levied the maximum property tax rate to cover expenditures. The House and Senate have repeatedly disagreed on how to compensate for lowering local school taxes. While the Senate seeks to rely more on an expanded business tax, the House has supported a greater reliance on raising the sales tax.

Perry vetoed an education budget that effectively offers the same amount of funding that districts received last year.

Though he wasn't thrilled with the budget, Folks said he would rather have some funding than none at all.

"We could have gone ahead without any risk or danger," he said, noting that about 35 percent of his district's funding comes from the state. "Now if (lawmakers) don't proceed, schools across Texas will not be able to operate."

Not all local school leaders agree. Edgewood School Board President Ramiro Nava said lawmakers tend to pull through when the stakes become high. Even if they don't, he added, most districts maintain a few months' worth of operating costs in savings.

"When August comes around, the schools will open. But at what cost, we don't know yet," he said.

Some superintendents said that dipping into the reserves would be reckless, possibly leaving districts penniless a few months into the school year.

All agreed that this summer would be a suspenseful one. In addition to general education funding, district administrators are also awaiting decisions on the school year start date and what textbooks they will be able to buy.

"It's the same thing we've heard over and over," said Judson School District health teacher Mary Mikels. "There's nothing we can do about it. Our hands are tied behind our back."

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