Houston News & Search
It felt like déjà vu to many of the 150 people who packed into Tinsley Elementary School‘s auditorium Wednesday evening.
Facing another controversial Houston ISD school finance referendum, speakers debated two unfavorable options, both of which will cost the school district millions of dollars.
Wednesday’s forum served as the latest update in a school finance saga that has pitted Houston ISD against the state after 62 percent of local residents voted in November against paying the state millions in so-called recapture fees.
Board President Wanda Adams, who hosted the town hall, thanked those present for voting against recapture in November. But she asked them to vote in favor of writing a recapture check. “Because of your no vote, you actually won. We were the first district ever to tell the state no, the first say we will not write a check until you fund public education,” Adams said.
The Houston ISD Board of Education voted in February to hold a second referendum on the issue May 6 after the state lessened the amount HISD would pay in recapture fee and threatened to “detach” commercial properties.
Glenn Reed, general manager of HISD’s Budgeting and Financial Planning, said this referendum is different than the one that appeared in on the November ballot.
“This is not a vote on recapture; it’s a vote on how you want us to pay it,” Reed said.
The recapture elections stemmed from anger over the state’s complicated school finance system, which sees property rich school districts pay the state millions each year to buoy school districts in more rural or property-poor areas through a process called recapture.
The TEA originally told the district it must pay $162 million in recapture, but lessened that amount to $77.5 million after it agreed to take 50 percent of the money HISD loses to a generous homestead exemption off of the district’s recapture bill.
If the district does not pay recapture willingly, the TEA said it will detach $7.7 billion worth of commercial properties and givetheir taxes to property poor districts, including Aldine ISD locally. At a school board workshop earlier this month, district officials said losing those commercial properties could cost the district $98.4 million in revenue in the next fiscal year.
The new referendum will read: “Authorizing the board of trustees of Houston Independent School District to purchase attendance credits from the state with local tax revenues.” A vote “for” purchasing attendance credits would mean the district would willingly pay the state’s recapture fee. A vote “against” would mean the state would detach some local commercial property.
Trustees said the November recapture election spurred action in Austin. In January, the Senate Finance Committee announced it would create a work study group that would look into overhauling the state’s school finance system. Earlier this month Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston) filed a bill that would provide $1.6 billion in additional state funding to schools and would lessen recapture payments by $163 million in 2018 and $192 million in 2019.
Linda Scurlock, who spoke during the question-and-answer portion of the town hall, said she would vote against paying recapture in May because businesses affected by detachment could put more pressure on the Legislature to change the school finance system.
“With state Legislature, you can never say never,” Scurlock said. “I believe if pressure is put on them to do this recapture, the (influential) people downtown will say no and the law will be changed. It will hit the corporate people who run the Legislature.”
Small business owner Becky Edmondson said she would sue the state if the TEA were to detach her commercial property, although she acknowledged it was an unlikely prospect due to her businesses’ size. Adams said during conversations with business leaders who would be affected by detachment, there was an unwillingness to sue the state.
“That’s not going to be an option for them,” Adams said. “They’ll be paying a higher tax rate (if they’re detached). If I’m a business owner and know my tax rate is about to go through roof, am I going to spend money suing the state, which could take years, or am I going to spend money on lawyers trying to lessen my property values?”
Houston News & Search