Monday, August 01, 2005

Superintendents wield power over bills

School chiefs KO'd plans, but new measure up for debate today

07:35 AM CDT on Monday, August 1, 2005

Associated Press

AUSTIN – School superintendents watch the Capitol from afar and know the details of school finance legislation better than some lawmakers.

They hold powerful positions in their communities, and during the last few days, they've spoken in a loud chorus about what they thought were flaws in the Legislature's education funding plans.

And after months devoted to school finance bills, lawmakers are listening.

Superintendents' opinions contributed to the death of a House education spending bill and accompanying tax measure last week and to the derailing of a Senate education plan – all dimming prospects for legislation to pass in the summer's second 30-day special legislative session.

"On the whole, this was not going to move education forward," Amarillo Superintendent Rod Schroder said after the House bills collapsed.

House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, gave credit to Mr. Schroder and his colleagues.

"The superintendents have really beat our members up the last few days," the speaker said after bills fell apart in the House. "The school people are against it. It makes it tough to vote."

Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said she ditched her education spending plan largely because of superintendents' complaints. She crafted a new bill she thinks will be more acceptable to school officials. That bill will be discussed today at a public hearing.

"What we think we heard from superintendents is we're not giving them enough discretionary money," Ms. Shapiro said. "So we're working out a system to try to do that, so that they feel better about the dollars."

Little appetite for battle

Still, her $2.8 billion proposal would be linked to a bill to reduce property taxes and replace them with other taxes.

Any tax bill must originate in the House, where lawmakers seem to have little appetite to continue the fight.

Some superintendents suggested that the state would be better off waiting for a school finance ruling from the Texas Supreme Court, expected in the next few weeks.

"I guess I've come to the conclusion that's how it's going to have to happen again," said Richardson Superintendent Jim Nelson, the former state education commissioner.

Texas' share-the-wealth school funding system, known as Robin Hood, was written by the Legislature in the early 1990s after courts declared the Texas system of funding schools unconstitutional.

But rich and poor school districts say the system needs an upgrade. Hundreds of districts sued the state, and last year a state district judge sided with them, ruling the system inadequate and unconstitutional. The high court is considering an appeal.

Gov. Rick Perry and many lawmakers say they want the Legislature, not the courts, to determine the state's education course. But legislators have tackled school funding for two years with no results.

In the two special sessions this summer called by Mr. Perry, a GOP-backed plan emerged from a House and Senate compromise panel. Its sponsors said it would have meant $2.4 billion in new spending for schools and given each district from 3 percent to 8 percent more revenue.

Some superintendents said those calculations didn't figure in the costs of paying for new state requirements in the plan.

"We didn't see any gains from that bill. Mandates outweigh any new money," Mr. Schroder said.

His Amarillo district would have been $800,000 in the hole this coming school year and $900,000 the next year under the plan, he said.

Troubled by mandates

Mr. Nelson said the proposal included little new money that wasn't tied to mandates. He estimated his Richardson district would have received "a very small gain" had the proposal become law.

The bill intrudes on local district control, Mr. Nelson said. He and other superintendents – along with teachers' unions – criticized a requirement that a certain portion of district money be set aside for a teacher performance incentive pay package.

It wasn't clear how to establish a fair incentive system, the superintendents said, and they didn't like the state telling districts how to spend their money.

"That's the thing that really kind of galled a lot of school board members and a lot of people," Mr. Nelson said.

Senators say they are paying attention to the concerns of educators and parents.

"When we listen, we learn," said Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock. "That is what has happened."

What the modified bill provides

Reduce the top school property tax rate to $1.25 per $100 valuation this year and $1.20 next year, while allowing districts to add up to 15 cents for local programs if voters approve. The current maximum is $1.50 for general operating expenses.

Add about $2.4 billion to state school spending over two years – a 3.5 percent increase. Each district would be guaranteed at least a 3 percent boost.

Give teachers an across-the-board $1,000 pay raise this fall and an additional $1,250 in fall 2006.

Give districts $500 per teacher this fall, and $250 next year, for other workers' salaries or teacher incentive pay.

Increase accountability requirements for districts and charter schools.

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