March 08, 2008
HISD becomes a rich district

Strange days.

For the first time, the Houston school district expects that it will have to pay several million dollars to the state under the controversial Robin Hood funding system.

The oddity involving the state's largest district is prompting renewed calls for changes to Texas' complex school funding laws, which require property-wealthy districts to share money with poorer ones.

Melinda Garrett, the Houston school district's chief financial officer, announced during a school board workshop Thursday that the district will owe an estimated $3.7 million to the state next year.

The hit won't be crippling -- it's only a sliver of the district's approximately $1.5 billion budget -- but school leaders said the funding system is flawed when a big-city district that serves mostly low-income children is forced to give up money.

"It will start getting worse every year," Garrett told the board.

She explained that the Houston Independent School District is jumping into the wealthy category because property values in the city are rising, but student enrollment is declining. That mix has boosted HISD's property value per student, the measure that the state uses to determine which districts must share their money.

"Our district is getting wealthier because we're a business hub, and that's a good thing," said David Thompson, a school finance expert and an attorney representing HISD and other districts. "But our population still has a growing number of poor and at-risk kids who need additional services. The state cannot have its largest district be unsupported by the state."

Board members agreed that Texas' school funding system is in need of an overhaul.

I think anyone who pays the least bit of attention to this realizes that the school funding system needs an overhaul. Unfortunately, what we've gotten is an illusory property tax cut being paid for in the short term by a cash surplus, a fast-growing school population with rising fixed costs (like electricity and gasoline) they can't control, and a state leadership in place that isn't interested in doing anything about it. Maybe if we get a Democratic Speaker next year, the House at least can take a real step in this direction, but the needed change isn't going to happen until there's a different Governor. If we're lucky, the system won't yet be in crisis by then.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on March 08, 2008 to Budget ballyhoo