FIELD NOTES: The school board’s Advil moment

field-notes
SCHOOL BOARD AND county commissioners’ meetings aren’t usually known for offering great drama and intrigue. Not so this week, though, as both deliberative bodies attempted to make headway on budget and tax rate planning, against the chaotic backdrop of the special legislative session’s waning hours—during which, it was anyone’s guess what would happen.

When commissioners met on Monday, the fate of SB 1—the property tax reform bill, which would have lowered the trigger requiring a property tax rate election to be called from 8 percent to 4 percent—still hung in the balance. (It has since failed, and there are rumors that another extra-special session may be in the offing.)

SB 1 had been calendared out to the full House on Friday. Several amendments were offered in the lower chamber to the Senate version of the bill, and votes were postponed until Monday while negotiations continued. One could almost hear the Senate tapping its collective fingernails, waiting for the House to buckle to its superior might.

The Senate had a substantial ace up its sleeves: Passage of HB 21, the school finance bill, was critical to many of the state’s rural schools—including several in the Panhandle that faced the prospect of devastating budget cuts and possible closing or consolidation, with the expiration of the $400 million state aid (ASATR) program. The House version of the bill promised some relief.

But Lt. Governor Dan Patrick wanted public tax dollars for private schools, in the form of a voucher program, and his Senate henchmen were holding public school funding hostage if their demands were not met.

Many of those schools that would be adversely affected are in State Rep. Ken King’s district. HB 21 would give them enough money to remain open—at least temporarily—and SB 1 was his only leverage. While he was opposed to the Senate’s bill, King admitted to Judge George Briant that he might be forced to vote for it in order to save those school districts.

When trustees met Tuesday evening, the full import of those tense negotiations, occurring far away in Austin, was palpable in the Canadian ISD school boardroom. The board had plans to set a tax rate and issue $6 million in school bonds. They had bids on the table, including one from Broadway National Bank, at the very favorable interest rate of 1.75 percent.

The bond issue was included as an action item on the night’s agenda, as was consideration of a proposed tax rate for 2017-18. The two decisions were inextricably intertwined, and the shape and size of both were contingent upon the Legislature’s action on HB 21.

Superintendent Kyle Lynch was unusually tense, checking his mobile phone frequently for updates from Austin. One trustee offered him some Advil.

Midway through the board meeting, Lynch received a text, informing him that the House had just approved HB 21 with the Senate’s amendments intact, and had quickly adjourned. With the Senate having already passed the bill, the deed was done…lacking only the governor’s signature, which was virtually assured.

Among the bill’s provisions is $150 million for hardship grants for ASATR districts like Canadian—$100 million of which will be available in fiscal year 2018, and another $50 million in 2019. But without specific detail on how the grants would be apportioned, Canadian school trustees were still paralyzed. They couldn’t decide whether to flip the M&O and I&S tax rates this year without knowing more—and a mistake at this point could prove costly to the district.

They were also up against the wall of their tax adoption schedule. Public notice of the bond issuance and proposed tax rate had to be published in this week’s Record in order to close on the deal within 30 days, and while the proposed tax rate can still be changed after the notice is published, it cannot be raised—only lowered.

The bond attorney who had attended the meeting earlier—and who could guide the board through its decision—was already on his way to the Amarillo airport. Another consultation by mobile phone would be required before the legal notice could be completed. The clock was ticking, and time running out, when the board finally agreed they had no choice but to propose a high enough tax rate that it could still be lowered and meet the district’s needs, regardless of the decisions that are still pending in Austin.

The point of this column is to explain why, in this week’s Record, Canadian ISD school trustees are proposing a tax rate of $1.00 for maintenance and operations and 66-cents for interest and sinking, for a total tax rate of $1.66—and a whopping increase of 45-cents above the current tax rate of $1.21.

Please don’t panic. Leave the tar and feathers in the barn. Abandon the pitchforks. Pick up a phone and call your favorite CISD school trustee, if you wish, but please don’t be too hard on them. That proposed tax rate will be lowered within the next couple of weeks, just as soon as the folks in Austin make up their minds, dot the i’s and cross the t’s, and figure out, once again, how they’re going to keep Texas’ public schools open without having to effectively fund public education themselves, as the Constitution requires.

And trust me. Your local school board members are doing their dead level best to make it all work. I just spent 3-1/2 very tense hours in the boardroom watching them do so Tuesday evening, and I speak with some authority.

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