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Local views mixed on HB 21

BY BRIAN BESCH
Enterprise staff
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LIVINGSTON -- Views on the final version of the school funding bill, House Bill 21, were mixed with one of its authors State Rep. James White seeing it as a step in the right direction while Livingston School Superintendent Dr. Brent Hawkins viewing it as “shortchanging” local students.

White, who represents Polk County in the Texas House, said that while compromises were made to get the bill passed, it does provide needed relief to property taxpayers.

“House Bill 21 was the same piece of legislation that was filed in the regular session. It was not a permanent fix, but attempted to start some type of major reform to our current broken school finance system. I co-authored both pieces in the regular session and special session. It provided some hardship grants to those school districts that were still impacted by additional state aid tax reduction (ASATR). In Polk County, I don’t have any districts that are substantially impacted by it. However, I do have a number of districts in Polk County that are impacted by small district penalties.

“A few decades ago, the legislature decided on spur of the moment that if you were a district that was under 1,600 students, there was a multiplier, where the legislature said they would fund them at a smaller multiplier than other districts that had more students. They were trying to find ways to make people consolidate or merge. HB 21 starts the process rolling that back. Over the next five or six years, that small school penalty will be phased out and that is huge in my district.

“Anytime the state pumps in money to our local schools, it is less we have to rely on our local property taxpayers. It also has the ability to flow through the system in a more equitable and adequate manner.

“I would have rather seen all of those monies go into public school funds. I am a former school teacher. When you look at our public schools, because of our numbers, we will never get a lot of charter schools in our area. When it comes to special education, career tech readiness, and specialized programs, our only reliance is our public schools. The legislature already takes care of charter schools and some of these charters are owned by private entities. Part of the legislation process involves making choices, and some of those choices involve compromise. We have to come up with a state revenue system for schools that does not put so much burden on the local property taxpayer.”

Hawkins said he feels the state, and specifically the Texas Senate, need to do more to fund public schools.

“HB21 is extremely disappointing, as the Texas Senate has once again shortchanged the students of LISD and across the state. Ninety-five percent of Texas kids go to underfunded and micromanaged public schools, the state has continued to reduce its percentage contribution to public education year after year and forced a growing tax burden on local taxpayers while not even spending those funds for education.

“The House acknowledged this reality and grappled with moves in a positive direction, but the Senate has questionable intentions to say the least. The creation of the commission to study school finance is waste of taxpayers’ dollars, as they have studied this topic for over 30 years.
“The bill does make temporary funding to the retired teachers across the state, which would be a great if you don’t account for the fact that the state has been underfunding these well-deserving employees for years.

“The ASATR funding in the bill for districts are funds in mostly high-per-pupil-revenue districts that we all knew was going away anyway. It is hard to look at the construction funding positive in the bill, because we need to educate students and not build buildings. Millions of dollars were allocated to charter school construction for 247,000 students, while five million students needed funding for educational expenses.

“As you may know, 78-80 percent of our budget is in salaries, and I applaud the efforts of the Board of Trustees of Livingston ISD that approved increases of faculty and staff salaries to meet the rising cost hitting educators’ families. The State of Texas sent the students and staff of Livingston $0, which in my opinion is just sad commentary.”