I have very mixed emotions reading a story like this.
For the residents of [the] tiny West Texas farming community [of Miles], the school district is central to their identity, history and way of life.
“There’s a wonderful feel about a small community,” said Glenda Lacy, the keeper of Miles’ history. “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
Miles, however, faces a serious threat to its survival from the school budget cuts being mulled in the Texas Capitol.
Lawmakers are considering a two-year budget proposal that does not cover $10 billion owed to school districts under current law, which would amount to a 14 percent reduction in total state and local education spending.
The possibility of such a loss of state aid has superintendents across Texas fretting about school closures, layoffs and fewer programs for students.
But for [Miles’ school superintendent Robert] Gibson, the worst-case scenario could mean the end of his town.
Miles will receive about $2.5 million this year in direct state aid while local taxpayers chip in another $710,000 by paying the maximum property tax rate allowed by state law.
Under the proposals floating around the Capitol, the district could be out as much as $508,000 — about 15 percent of its total budget — for each year of the 2012-13 budget. And Gibson can’t ask voters to authorize any more local tax money to make up the difference.
“Everything we have asked of them, they have done,” Gibson said. “If we ask them to dig a little deeper, I’m sure they would. But I don’t think it’s fair.”
Bill Grusendorf, executive director of the Texas Association of Rural Schools , said that if state education money must be cut, it should come from the school districts that get the most in per-student funding, not the small districts struggling at the bottom.
“The danger there, politically, is that we’re outnumbered,” said state Rep. Harvey Hilderbran , R-Kerrville, whose district includes Miles.
If representatives from urban and suburban districts team up, Hilderbran said, the rural districts are doomed.
On the one hand, I feel terrible for these small, rural districts. As Warren Chisum pointed out, they are the largest employers in many West Texas towns. The cuts outlined in the Pitts and Ogden budgets really would be their death knell. On the other hand, let’s be honest: They’re getting exactly what they voted for. By my calculation, Rep. Hilderbran’s district gave Rick Perry 75% of the vote last year. Perhaps some of them were as misled about the state of the state’s finances as Jim Keffer’s constituents apparently were, but it’s not like they haven’t been voting for self-professed small-government budget-cutting Republicans all along. They wanted smaller government and budget cuts, now they’re going to get them. How much sympathy am I supposed to muster?
Which isn’t to say that they don’t have some legitimacy to their complaint. Though again, it all stems from something I’m sure the residents out there largely support, the 2006 property tax cuts:
So that no school district suffered as the balance of state and local money changed, lawmakers essentially froze the level of per-student revenue at what each school district was getting in 2005-06.
That snapshot captured some districts at an ideal moment because of what was happening on the ground locally. Others were not so lucky.
One district near Miles has $6,700 per student in combined state and local money while Miles’ take is $5,065. Though it has 100 fewer students than Miles, the neighboring district has $1 million more to spend because of that difference.
“Every student ought to be worth the same amount of money, but they’re not, and that’s not fair to the students,” said Elaine Baca , a school board member in Miles.
And that inequity will surely be a key component to the next school finance lawsuit. At the end of the day, though, if you want public schools to get what they need you have to vote for politicians who make them a priority, not property tax cuts. Maybe now that message will start to get through.