‘Dereliction of duties’: Tri-county schools react to legislative failure to fund public education

Dirks-Anderson Elementary School Principal Shera Welch holds student Paityn Zimmerman on one of the last days of the 2022-2023 school year. The school, a part of Fort Davis ISD, was built in 1925 and its main hallway remains largely unchanged. The small district is one of several in the Big Bend region in desperate need of an infusion of state funding. Photo by Maisie Crow.

TRI-COUNTY — As the area’s under-funded, rural school districts face rising operating costs due to inflation, deteriorating facilities, teachers shortages and more, the recently-concluded 88th Legislative Session resulted in very little new funding for public education despite the state’s record-breaking $33 billion budget surplus.

The outcome has left the leaders of tri-county school districts feeling discarded by state leadership, who they say is failing to adequately support rural public schools.

“I feel like in many ways this [legislative] session has been a dereliction of duties specifically for public education,” said Dr. Michelle Rinehart, superintendent of Alpine ISD. “For there to be no new significant funding for public education, or for teacher pay raises, is just staggering.”

Rinehart said the timing of the session concluding and the Legislature’s primary education-related bill, HB 100 — which would have addressed several school funding issues, including raising the basic allotment per student by $900 — not passing has left districts across the state scrambling to soon finalize their budgets without the anticipated boost of state aid.

“Districts are just expected to weather the costs at the expense of our public ed students and teachers,” said Rinehart. “[It’s] just a really difficult time when it didn’t have to be. This isn’t one of those legislative sessions where there was just no money.” 

Now, districts across the state are facing the bleak reality that they may receive no more substantial state funding for the next two years, and will have to stretch every dollar of their budgets. (HB 1, the general appropriations, or budget bill, included a mandatory bump to a specific part of the school funding formula, which will give districts a small increase in funds.)

In Texas, school funding is sourced from local school district property taxes, state and federal funds, and is determined per district based on a complex formula which education leaders in the Big Bend region argue is harming local districts. 

The portion of state aid that makes up school budgets has been declining in the area over the years. Fort Davis ISD has seen a 93% decrease in state funding since 2011. Marfa ISD has seen a similar 91% decrease, according to numbers provided by the district. 

Alpine and Fort Davis ISD both anticipate adopting deficit budgets for the coming 2023-2024 school year. Marfa ISD’s need to purchase a new school bus may also force them to pass an unbalanced budget, said Chief Financial Officer Rosela Rivera. 

Rinehart and Fort Davis ISD Superintendent Graydon Hicks, who has foretold his district’s financial ruin and is “furious” with the lack of legislative outcomes, both said that the political will to support public education seemed to be absent from lawmakers at the Capitol. 

“I think everybody [at the Legislature] in one way or another, does not have public schools’ best interests at heart,” said Hicks. “I think both sides, Democrat and Republican and both chambers, Senate and House, they’re all jockeying for a talking point for reelection.” 

Dr. Doug Karr, a previous superintendent of Presidio ISD who has worked as a school finance consultant closely following legislative sessions since 2007, said the lack of new funds for public schools sent a strong message to public education. 

“We’ve never really seen this before, where we had such a surplus of any kind — and in this case, such a big surplus — and basically just walked away with nothing, end of story,” said Karr. 

“The Legislature is just looking at public education — particularly the group of people in the House of Representatives — and basically saying, ‘Well, I don’t like you. I don’t love you. I never cared for you. And we’re not going to give you any more money,’” he added. 

School vouchers, an initiative that would allow public education funds to be distributed to private schools, also referred to as “school choice,” dominated much of the politicking this session — and was a priority for Governor Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick. 

Rinehart penned a column in the Alpine Avalanche this spring in which she called for state lawmakers to focus their efforts on public education funding rather than vouchers, which she argued would “divert taxpayer funds to private or home schools without any accountability or transparency.” 

A very specific allowance for school choice for certain students was included in HB 100, but the Senate advocated for broader application of the program in their education bill, and that disagreement, in part, led to HB 100 not passing. 

“All along, the idea was to hold public education funding hostage in order to force through vouchers as an additional state entitlement if you will, for a select few,” said Rinehart. 

State Representative Eddie Morales, who represents the tri-county region in the Texas House, took to social media to lament what he characterized as the Senate’s “hijack” of HB 100.

“Regrettably, the Texas Senate seized the opportunity to hijack HB 100 to implement their proposed voucher scheme that would put taxpayer dollars in private schools that have little to no accountability,” wrote Morales in a Facebook post. “Due to the Senate’s actions, HB 100 has died along with ANY extra dollars for our schools, students, and teachers. I am incredibly disappointed in the Senate’s willingness to hold our public schools hostage to push their unwanted agenda that would decimate our rural districts.”

Rinehart said she would have liked to see recommendations from the Teacher Vacancy Taskforce (TVT) — established in March 2022 by Gov Abbott to study teacher recruitment and retention across the state which released findings this February — be supported by public funds. The TVT’s findings highlighted the need to increase teacher salaries, provide incentives for hard-to-staff areas, expand training opportunities and more and recommended funds be allocated to districts “at the level necessary for successful implementation.” 

As it stands, tri-county schools are already at the lowest end of the salary funding scale, said Rinehart, and not easily able to offer teacher raises without state assistance. Starting salaries for teachers in the area vary slightly — Fort Davis ISD pays the state minimum at $33,660, while Alpine and Marfa ISDs hover just above at $35,190 and $34,390 respectively. The state average starting teacher salary is $45,500, according to 2023 data from the National Education Association. 

Alpine ISD will still work to address recommendations from the TVT, said Rinehart, but will be limited based on available funding. “That’s felt even more by our districts and by our teachers because we don’t have the buffer of additional funding or higher salaries that many other districts already have,” she said. 

Another area Rinehart would have liked to see addressed by state lawmakers is how local appraisal districts’ determination of property values can negatively impact school funding. Districts can only collect school taxes based on local appraisal districts’ determined property values, but the state comptroller often disputes those figures and comes in at higher valuations. The Texas Education Agency is by law required to abide by the comptroller’s higher values when determining levels of state aid, meaning funding is often reduced for districts, even as they are doomed to collect taxes based on the lower values. 

These nuances are often overlooked by state lawmakers, said Rinehart. “No one at the Capitol’s going to be looking at, ‘Well, how is this all going to impact Alpine?’ But by not thinking through those implications and not taking action on some of these pieces of legislation, all of these different failures on their part culminate in significant underfunding for certain districts, and Alpine’s one of them,” said Rinehart. 

Another issue that impacts Alpine ISD that was addressed in HB 100 but was not adopted into law was the extension of the “formula transition grant,” a necessary corrective measure that has shielded some districts from unintended revenue loss as a result of previous legislation, but is set to expire this coming school year. 

Alpine ISD was among a small portion of schools in the state that were adversely affected by HB 3, an education bill passed in 2019 intended to increase school funding based on adjustments to the funding formula. For Alpine ISD, the bill led to a 3% loss in funding, according to Rinehart, and without the renewal of the formula transition grant that negated the loss, they will be out more money at the start of the 2024-2025 school year. 

“The state’s failure to act right now has created a significant fiscal cliff for many school districts, particularly rural districts, and those financial challenges are going to show up about a year from now,” said Rinehart. 

Tri-county schools are also using up the very last of ESSER monies — finite, pandemic-era relief funds received in 2020 — this fiscal year. Both Marfa and Alpine will use the remainder of the funds, around half a million dollars each, on vital operational costs for teacher and staff salaries. Rinehart said the situation is a “perfect storm,” and Alpine ISD is anticipating their deficit will soon grow from $300,000 to $1 million. 

“ESSER allowed [state lawmakers] to invest less, because the federal government was, in essence, filling the gap on many of the inflationary costs that school districts did incur over the last four years. When that money disappears a year from now, that’s an additional half-million dollars that will be cut from our budget,” said Rinehart. 

Tri-county administrators agree that the root of their ongoing budget issues lies in the state funding formula, which was not planned to be addressed this legislative session. Moving forward, Rinehart said inadequacies that result from how the funding formula plays out in rural schools needs to be addressed by lawmakers, as opposed to more typical one-size-fits-all solutions.

In Marfa, the school board’s common criticism of state policies is over the recapture, or “Robin Hood,” law, which requires property-wealthy districts to send money to the state for it to be equitably distributed to districts across Texas. But the combination of Marfa’s exorbitant property values and declining enrollment causes Marfa ISD to send back large chunks of their annual budget. According to CFO Rosela Rivera, the recapture payment for the 2022-2023 school year was recently finalized and amounted to $1.7 million out of the school’s $4.8 million budget. 

Fort Davis ISD Superintendent Hicks, who has been in the role since 2014, has assessed the option of ordering a tax rate ratification election to bolster the district’s budget, but with property valuations and taxes reaching record highs, the local appetite for more taxes doesn’t exist, and the election, which could cost around $20,000, may not be worth the risk, he said. 

The district is left with few options for how to proceed with improving their funding, he said, due to limited local control. Fort Davis ISD will adopt a deficit budget this year, and has been spending money from their fund balance, similar to a savings account, of which around $800,000 to $900,000 remains. 

Hicks has plans to retire at the end of the summer, and would be eligible to work as a part-time superintendent. The board has yet to make any decisions regarding the position, and talks of consolidating or closing Fort Davis schools down entirely have been circulated. But details on how a potential consolidation would work remain fuzzy, said Hicks, and the closure of a district which has served the unincorporated community since 1889 wouldn’t ultimately solve anything.

“The problem is not the local districts, the problem is not how we’re managing the money. The problem is the funding drivers and the legislative actions keep reducing our allocation. That’s the problem.” said Hicks. “It doesn’t matter if you consolidate us, it’s still going to be the problem.”