Alpine ISD School Board signs resolution urging lawmakers to increase public education funding 

Alpine ISD Superintendent Michelle Rinehart. Staff photo by Mary Cantrell.

ALPINE — The Alpine ISD Board of Trustees adopted a resolution this week in response to what it calls the “state underfunding of rural public schools,” outlining the district’s various financial shortcomings and calling on the governor and the Legislature to urgently address the matter. 

The resolution requests immediate financial assistance for cash-strapped rural districts in the form of teacher salary increases and a solution for property value disputes between the local appraisal district and the state comptroller, which can negatively impact a district’s bottom line. Beyond those concerns, the resolution calls on state leaders to “address the root causes of persistent underfunding of rural school districts.” 

Alpine ISD Superintendent Dr. Michelle Rinehart said the document, while largely symbolic, includes specific recommendations the district hopes legislators will act on during ongoing and future special sessions, including one potentially dedicated solely to education this fall. 

“The resolution is really in response to the session as a whole but also the lack of movement in special sessions since then,” said Rinehart. 

Local school district leaders recently voiced extreme disappointment with what they felt was a lack of support for public schools during the 88th Legislature, which concluded in June. Despite a significant budget surplus and calls for more funding for Texas’ public schools, who are facing rising inflation costs and more, no significant funds were allocated. 

In June, the Speaker of the House Dade Phelan named a new select committee on education which is tasked with authoring a report, due mid-August, concerning educational opportunities, modernization of the assessment and accountability system and staff support for the state’s K-12 schools. 

Rinehart said she wanted the financial situation at Alpine ISD, which serves 950 students, to help inform that report. And while the district has a certain amount of local control to streamline costs and seek out grants, long-term legislative solutions are required. 

“There are certain parts of this that we don’t control locally, and we can’t fix locally,” said Rinehart. “The only way to truly fix those issues is at the state level, and specifically for us that’s about fixing nuances of the funding formula that end up underfunding Alpine year over year.”

Over $10 billion in the state’s general revenue fund remains, and with a full rainy day fund, both the first and second special sessions have placed an emphasis on providing tax relief for Texans. School districts are funded, in part, by local property taxes. 

State lawmakers are currently considering two main laws: HB 1, which would enact a 16.2-cent tax rate reduction for school districts, and SB 1, which would enact a 10-cent tax rate reduction, increase the homestead exemption to $100,000, and lower the automatic tax rate compression, plus two-year teacher pay increases. (Districts under 20,000 students would receive $6,000 per full-time teacher.)

The potential tax cuts will not result in less money for districts, according to Bob Popinski, senior director of policy with Raise Your Hand Texas, a nonprofit that supports public education.

“When you reduce your tax rate it means the state has to pour more money in because the local school district is collecting less taxes,” explains Popinski. 

But while state aid may grow to make up a larger portion of a school district’s finances — it’s been declining over the years, with Fort Davis and Marfa ISDs seeing 93 and 91% decreases in state funds, respectively — that doesn’t equate to more money flowing into schools. Popinski explained that an increase in state aid will allow the district to break even after lost tax revenue.

“State share will go up above 50% — the problem is it went above 50% without giving pay raises to teachers, without giving inflation adjustments to school districts to pay for fuel and utilities,” said Popinski. 

Rinehart said she supports property tax relief and, in her experience, the state’s increasing reliance on local property taxes to fund schools has led to tension — town residents don’t understand how property taxes can be so high while local schools suffer. 

“Yes, locals are paying more, but they’re paying more of the same total amount and the state’s just paying less — school district funding isn’t increasing,” said Rinehart. 

Alpine ISD, like other districts across the state, will spend remaining federal pandemic relief funds this year that have helped them stay afloat. A “formula transition grant” which protects the district from unintended revenue loss as a result of 2019 legislation will also expire this year. 

With those financial hits on the horizon — a total of $1.5 million — Rinehart said now was the time to push for legislation, given that lawmakers only meet every two years. The district will soon start a letter writing campaign with the goal of sending 2,000 letters from Alpine to the Capitol.

“We can weather this next year as we’ve been weathering underfunding for years. But it’s the 2024-2025 school year where some different changes come into play in the funding formula that just really set up an impossible situation for Alpine to sustain for multiple years after that.” 

Another $1.2 million loss in funding last year, according from Rinehart, resulted from local county appraisal district and state comptroller property value disputes. By law, the state relies on the comptroller’s property valuations to determine how much aid it allots to districts, while the districts themselves are required to tax residents based on the valuations of the local appraisal district. Those two valuations don’t always line up. In Alpine’s case, the comptroller’s numbers are higher than the local appraisal district’s — meaning the district is insufficiently funded by the state without the tax revenue to make up for it.

“The state pretends that we collect taxes on [the comptroller’s valuations], and there’s no way we could because they’re not valued at that locally,” said Rinehart. 

Both Rinehart and Popinski argued the Legislature was unbalanced in its focus this session on school vouchers — controversial legislation supported by Governor Greg Abbott that would allow public funds, potentially $8,000 per student, to be spent on private school education.

The Legislature has budgeted a total $500 million for the school voucher program, money which is coming out of the public education bucket. An earlier attempt during the regular session to push vouchers through resulted in HB 100, the primary education-related bill, not passing. 

Popinski said his organization would like to see “real conversations about real issues” in special sessions “without attaching a voucher to every last policy issue.” Raise Your Hand Texas is advocating for an increase in the basic allotment per student by $1,000, an automatic inflation adjustment to help continually support districts, and more. 

As it stands, vouchers are “directly impacting everything” he said, including a potential increase in funding that helps support small to mid-sized schools like those in the Big Bend region. 

“[The Senate] reduced a lot of the small and mid-size allotment so that they could afford the $500 million for the voucher program,” said Popinksi. “You can see how vouchers are playing into this, and it hurts rural and small school districts.” 

Popinski and Rinehart said they were concerned with the voucher program’s lack of oversight as well as the idea that public funds typically diverted to public schools would be funneled into private institutions without state rules, regulations and requirements. 

“We want to support our 5.5 million kids in public schools, [and] nearly 400,000 teachers — they’re the engine of the state,” said Popinski. “We’ve spent decades creating policies to shape our schools better … and to have a policy that says, ‘All right, you can just take $8,000 per kid and go off to a private school or vendor without any of those policies attached to it,’ doesn’t seem like it’s the right policy for the state of Texas for a lot of different reasons.”