PISD tackles accountability measures, state funding in legislative discussion
With Texas' 83rd Legislative Session set to start in January, cash-strapped school districts across the state are working to make clear what they would like to see from legislators this session. Plano ISD is no different.
At Tuesday's board meeting, PISD trustees heard what that message might look like and discussed how the district can send it to elected officials and the public during this legislative session.
Superintendent Richard Matkin opened the discussion by saying the district should take an assertive, grassroots approach with this year's legislative initiative by approaching PTAs, business leaders and statewide school associations for help sending its message to legislators.
"The main thing that educators and school communities need to do is unite together, because if it's just a Plano ISD deal, it's not going to work other than send a real signal," he said. "Even if something doesn't stick, it needs to be said and the conversation needs to start. We know that legislation can be slow moving at times, but it's my hope that we can jump-start the conversation and let that be heard."
A draft legislative statement prepared for discussion by district staff members proposes the district ask the legislature to allow local districts to measure academic growth themselves throughout the school year and report their findings to the state for yearly accountability ratings. The state would then conduct statewide assessments of students transitioning from fifth to sixth grade and from eighth to ninth grade to measure student progress. State accountability standards would also be modified to reflect students' gradual achievement growth rather than a single benchmark score.
"That's a major shift in the system right now, but it does relieve the testing burden, if you will," said Jim Hirsch, associate superintendent for academic and technology services. "It also makes it more realistic in terms of what role the districts have from a control standpoint."
The statement also put forth the idea that the state could cut down the required number of STAAR end-of-course (EOC) exams to two for each content area -- or 10 total -- with the third exam in each content area reserved for students seeking distinction.
"It's hard to predict the impact of those 15 EOC's on our graduation, because we've only really got through the first year, but all indications are that's going to substantially impact that number of students who are going to make that cumulative score on those 15 EOC's," Hirsch said, referring to the state requirement that students may only graduate if their combined EOC exam scores meet or exceed a cumulative benchmark.
The recommendation would also remove the inclusion of a student's EOC exam scores in his or her final course grade. Next year will be the first that students will expect 15 percent of their final grade to come from their EOC results, a provision of the STAAR system that has drawn widespread opposition from school districts statewide.
"We still think it's a local decision, if you will, at the district level, if a student finishes course content at a certain level to receive a certain grade independent of the EOC, which because of its cumulative nature has its own impact on graduations," Hirsch said.
Coming out of the discussion related to the EOC exams, Missy Bender, Place 7 trustee, said the district could go directly to local legislators with specific suggestions and requests for bills. New legislators, she said, may be eager to attach their name to cost-saving measures that also return local control to the district, a sentiment on which Matkin expanded.
"One thing that you will find that's emerging in politics is they're hungry, they're ready to make an impact, they're ready to make a statement, so it's refreshing in a way that we might have a platform to encourage them," Matkin said.
The statements also call for changes to the current school finance system, asking legislators to give more tax discretion to local school boards. The taxing authority of the PISD school board was limited to a maximum maintenance and operations rate of $1.04 by the 2006 Legislature in response to a state Supreme Court ruling that the state's use of local tax dollars amounted to a state property tax, something prohibited by the Texas constitution.
"They came up with new revenue streams that would replace that, but they didn't replace that, so the logic behind it is, since you mandated the tax rate reductions and didn't replace it, at least allow us to replace it," said Steve Fortenberry, associate superintendent for business and facilities services.
Districts can exceed the state's tax rate cap up to $1.17 through a Tax Ratification Election -- like the one passed by Allen ISD in October -- but any revenue gained from the pennies of tax effort between $1.06 and $1.17 is subject to recapture from the state under the Chapter 41, or "Robin Hood," statute. The district would ask the legislature to instead let local districts keep that revenue.
"It would be very challenging to ask local taxpayers to generate that other 11 cents if half of it stayed here and half of it went somewhere else," Fortenberry said.
PISD is one of 86 school districts suing the state over the school finance system, arguing that it does not adequately fund schools and still serves as a de-facto statewide property tax. While a ruling is not expected until spring 2013, the district should still make a "critical legislative statement" this session, Matkin said.
"Let's go back and choose the right thing to do for an individual community and I think that, because we do have some new legislators, they need to understand this; even the ones that are more experienced," he said.
Another listed initiative would ask legislators to adjust the target revenue system, which requires districts earning more per-student revenue than they did in 2006 to pay the difference back to the state, to account for inflation. PISD's target revenue, Fortenberry said, has been adjusted only once since implementation and has been brutally outpaced by rising costs.
"Since the target revenue was implemented fully in 2006-07, Plano's net general fund revenue per student has dropped by 4.5 percent with this year's reductions, while the consumer price index, over that same period of time, has reached over 13 percent," he said. "So there's now about a 17 percent gap compared to just six years ago."
The plan would repeal plans enacted by the 2011 Legislature to phase out the system altogether in lieu of formula funding by 2017.
One "out of the box" proposal in the document, Matkin said, is the expansion of discretionary sales tax authority to school districts with voter approval.
"Cities have discretionary taxes," he said. "We're saying that this to expand the discretionary sales tax part. [Plano] has allocated theirs to DART, and again they've made some good economic decisions in the economic development, so we're not talking about that."
District 66 Rep. Van Taylor, outside the meeting, expressed support for local control for school districts and in-district use of property tax dollars, but said the school finance picture will remain ambiguous until the courts render a verdict in the school finance lawsuit.
"Right now, I think the general thought is let's see what the courts say next spring, and let's plan accordingly," he said. "I think the idea that communities that want to pay more for higher levels of education, that strikes me as a reasonable request and one that should be honored. The ideas that communities that are able to generate economic development should enjoy some benefit to their education system as a result of that is a reasonable request."