Abbott puts school finance on special session call, to joy of school districts

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — There is hope state lawmakers could actually pass a school finance plan that would benefit your child’s school. Thursday, Gov. Greg Abbott expanded his call for a special session so lawmakers can tackle education funding. This comes as many schools prepare for cuts.

Even a wealthy school district like Lake Travis ISD is feeling the crunch from the state. Assistant Superintendent Johnny Hill will watch half a million dollars disappear in September from a state money stream called “ASATR,” Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction. This comes as the district is growing.

“The amount of monies we’re able to spend on those kids here is actually decreasing,” said Hill.

He says now 90 percent of their money comes from local property taxes in Lake Travis and next year, they’ll have to give $40 million back to state through a system commonly referred to as “Robin Hood,” where property wealthy districts give money back to the state for the purpose of paying for property poor districts.

“We’d have to increase our student-to-staff ratios, so now we have more kids. We have 30 kids in a classroom at our high school. We have 28 kids per classroom in our middle schools,” said Hill, wanting to bring those numbers down.

The Texas House is expected to focus on this school finance bill more than the other, more controversial measures on the special session. House Public Education Chairman Dan Huberty, R-Houston, spoke by phone to say he’ll attempt to put half the ASATR money back in the budget, around $200 million more to be a “glide path.”

“So it is a little bit of a softer landing, so we dealt with that,” said Rep. Huberty.  At the same time, it could address the rise in property taxes, that’s also on the special session call.

“If the legislature is talking about the school finance system then that can lead to a discussion about property taxes and the growing burden that’s been on property taxpayers,” said Jason Embry, a spokesperson for House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, who once again has prioritized school finance.

Lawmakers are now at the Capitol, with 27 more days to come up with a fix.

During the regular session, the Texas Senate would not pass a school finance bill without a provision for public dollars to go to private schools. That continues to be opposed by the House.

Also, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has called the Houses’s previous version a “Ponzi scheme.” He proposes school reform this special session by increasing teacher pay without new money from the state.

Rep. Huberty has filed a very similar, but slightly slimmed down version from the regular session. His previous idea increased state spending by $1.6 billion by mostly increasing the per-student funding allowed by the formulas.

It would let property rich districts keep more of their local dollars in their local schools and pick up more of the tab for property poor districts. If lawmakers don’t act, some districts worry they may have to shut down.

School officials in both Kelton ISD and Lefors ISD told our partners at the Texas Tribune they only have two to three years left if nothing changes. Districts like these rely on ASATR funding for day to day operations.

Out of the 300 school districts losing money, some will be out millions. Several, including Andrews ISD, will miss out on more than $10 million in September if the funding isn’t reinstated.

Gov. Abbott told KXAN earlier this week that if a school finance reform bill passes during this special session, he’d be “honored” to sign it.

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