At the back of the line

Almost every day, it seems, there is another headline or two about how more school districts – large and small are trying to grapple with deepening budgetary problems.

A recent sampling – but by no means an allinconclusive list – includes Austin ISD, Fort Worth, Arlington, El Paso, North East in San Antonio, Fort Bend, Carrollton Farmers Branch, GrapevineColleyville, La Marque, Conroe, CypressFairbanks, Aldine, etc., etc. The problems are all over the state.

School boards are looking at a number of unpleasant options, including larger classes, hiring freezes and teacher and staff layoffs. Many teachers may have been getting the bad news this week since deadlines are approaching for districts to inform contract employees whom they don’t intend to rehire for the next school year.

Some school officials say these are the toughest financial times for schools in years, and undoubtedly the recession is partly to blame. So are expanding enrollments and rising expenses, like transportation and utility costs.

But much of the blame also can be traced back to 2006, when the Texas Supreme Court ordered another overhaul of the school finance system. Gov. Rick Perry, who then (as now) was in the middle of a reelection race, responded by joining with Republican legislative leaders to insist that local property taxes be lowered.

The cuts were minimal for most homeowners. But collectively they took a huge bite from school districts – and still are – since the governor and the Legislature didn’t close the funding gap with enough state revenue. A package of revenue increases – mainly a new business tax – enacted in 2006 now falls about $4.6 billion a year short of replacing the lost property tax revenue. Numberscrunchers call it a “structural” shortfall in the state budget.

Most homeowners have long since forgotten their fleeting “relief” from property taxes, but educators and the children they teach are still suffering the consequences of the state’s misguided budgetary policy, a policy that shoved schools to the back of the line.

With the Legislature expected to face a budgetary shortfall between $11 billion and $15 billion next January, the outlook for a significant improvement in school funding isn’t bright. But educators – and anyone else who cares about the public schools – have to keep trying.

And, November’s election affords you an opportunity to make some changes in state government, especially at the top.

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