Warning for C. Texas school district

February 9, 2008 5:52:57 AM PST
The Texas education commissioner said Friday that he will dismantle a property-wealthy school district in Central Texas if they don't make a legally required payment to the state school finance system known as Robin Hood by next week. "I can't be any more emphatic to say I have no choice in this case to take action against a district that fails to make a recapture payment," Education Commissioner Robert Scott said. "I took an oath as commissioner of education to uphold the laws of this state and the laws are very clear."

School officials at Wimberley have refused to make a payment on their $2.3 million debt, which is due by Feb. 15. The school district has been in negotiations with Scott and the school board will meet Tuesday to discuss the issue.

Scott said state law would require him to remove property from the Wimberley Independent School District and then make those homes, businesses and students part of a neighboring district. Enough property would have to be removed so the property wealth per student is reduced to a level that does not require property tax money be sent back to the state for redistribution among poorer districts.

"We cannot afford to get consolidated. That is a terrible outcome for our school district, for our county and particularly for those approximately 2,000 students," said Rep. Patrick Rose, D-Dripping Springs, whose district also includes Wimberley. "We have a week to resolve that."

Wimberley Superintendent Dwain York said the district already is having to cut teachers and reduce academic programs that have helped the schools be considered "recognized," one of the top two levels given by the state.

"We perform well because we have programs in place that don't cost us a lot of money," York said Friday in a hearing before the House Select Committee on Higher and Public Education Finance. "And the key to our success is quality teachers ... I just submitted an 08-09 budget with 14 less teachers in our district. That's absurd."

York said his district has weathered a "perfect storm" of financial hardships that have led to the budget crisis.

Among them, a projected level of enrollment growth at Wimberley in previous years that didn't hold up. Because school finances are based on a per student measurement, the district now has to repay about $1 million that they were allowed to keep last year for expected new students that never came.

Rose told reporters Friday that the Texas Education Agency would allow the district to delay the $1 million enrollment debt payment until 2009, but agency spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe said the state has not made that offer. She did say that regular payments starting this month would be an option.

"We can stretch it out, but a balloon payment is not an option at this point," Ratcliffe said. "I'm not sure it ever will be, quite frankly, but that's not what's been offered."

The district also must pay a penalty to the state for money they paid to buyout a superintendent's contract. In an effort to discourage districts from spending such money, a clause in state law requires districts to pay a penalty equal to the amount spent in such situations.

But the amount owed to the state also has increased in recent years. The popular retirement community has seen increasing property values as more people move into the town. But because the newcomers are retirees, most don't have school-aged children that would create enrollment growth and the corresponding dollars that would come with additional students.

"Our problem is with the Legislature, seriously, with these sessions that seem to give us no assistance in this area whatsoever," York said, begging the lawmakers to grant the district relief when they next meet for a legislative session.

The committee, led by Republican Rep. Dan Branch of Highland Park, is working to craft school finance legislation that can be considered during the next legislative session, which begins in a year.

During a 2006 school funding overhaul, lawmakers "spent a lot of time trying to improve our current system," Branch said. But he said he thinks the system can still be improved.

"And that's one of the purposes of our committee, why we're dealing with this issue here today ... many of us don't believe the system is still where it needs to be."

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