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EduLege Tracker 5-13-19

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EduLege Update Volume VII, Number 32
May 13, 2019
By Andy Welch
A Service of the Texas School Public Relations Association

Now, a year later…

With the first anniversary of last May’s mass shooting at Santa Fe High School less than one week away, Texas legislators are responding by considering legislation that would increase the number of armed school staff, require campus emergency response plans and provide more mental health resources to students.

The most divisive proposals would increase the number of armed School Marshals on school campuses and remove the current restriction that their guns remain in storage. 

The legislation has passed the State Senate, and awaits key votes in the Texas House.

A sweeping school safety-related measure, Senate Bill 11, would require emergency response training for district staff, including substitute teachers; establish “threat assessment teams” to help identify potentially violent students and increase the number of mental health professionals in schools.

That bill, which has bipartisan support, passed out of the Senate two weeks ago, and was heard in the House Public Education Committee last week.  

Many of the provisions contained in SB 11 were the product of Governor Greg Abbott’s roundtable discussions with parents, students, educators, law enforcement professionals and mental health experts, held after a student armed with a pistol and a shotgun killed 10 people at Santa Fe High School on May 18.

The governor has made school safety one of his top priorities this session.

Some of the most contentious legislative debate has centered on School Marshals.

Texas had fewer than 40 certified School Marshals across more than 1,000 school districts in early 2018. Applications rose sharply after the Santa Fe shooting, and the number of certified School Marshals is now closer to 200. The marshals receive 80 hours of training, including practice in "live shooter" scenarios.

Some legislators are concerned that increasing the number of armed marshals in Texas schools could result in more mishandled guns on campus.

State Representative Donna Howard, D-Austin, said there have been 65 mishandled guns in schools in the last five years—including three incidents in Texas—according to the Giffords Law Center.

Gun violence prevention activists also say that more guns on schools is not the answer.

“There’s just such a recipe for all grades, K-12, of firearms dropping, of a student getting hold of them as a joke or intentionally to do harm,” said Gyl Swizter, executive director of Texas Gun Sense. “We need to think prevention, and we need to think other than firearms.”

Go ahead—just round-up to $60 billion…

The Texas House has passed a bill that would eliminate—yes, eliminate—local school districts’ Maintenance & Operation property tax, which easily comprises the largest portion of Texans’ property tax bills, starting in January 2022.

House Bill 297 by State Representative Andrew Murr, R-Junction, would cost the state a whopping $58.5 billion in the 2022-2023 budget cycle.

Representative Murr says that his bill is not so much a promise to eliminate the school property tax in three years, as it is to start a meaningful conversation about the feasibility of replacing that property tax revenue with higher sales tax revenue as a main source of funding Texas schools.

“If you abolish M&O school property taxes, which is, I know, thinking outside of the box and a little scary for everyone, if you choose to do that, then a look to the sales tax is the most viable first option to discuss,” Representative Murr said.

The House approved the bill, 95-46, advancing it to the Senate.

HB 297 would also create a committee that would study whether an increase in the sales tax, and elimination of certain sales tax exemptions, can help fund schools.

Representative Murr acknowledges that the state sales tax could go as high as 14 percent to meet the state’s constitutional duty of funding public schools. The current combined state and local tax rate is a maximum of 8.25 percent.

“And that’s not viable,” Representative Murr said of a 14 percent sales tax rate. “But as policy makers, we’ve got to have that serious discussion of, if people call and want substantive change on their property taxes, what does the state do differently?”

Governor Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen have already tested the Legislature’s appetite this session to increase the sales tax by one percentage point to buy down school property taxes. A proposed constitutional amendment, which would have asked Texas voters to approve the tax swap, died last week on the House floor, after encountering opposition from Democrats and many Republicans.

Some Republicans were skeptical that such a tax swap would work, and saw it as a tax hike. Democrats opposed the sales tax increase because it would disproportionately hurt poor families.

According to State Comptroller Glenn Hegar, the sales tax is actually a more volatile source of revenue than is the property tax.

Looks like it’s DOA in the Senate…

By an overwhelming vote of 116-24, the Texas House has approved a bill that would temporarily suspend the sanctions for students and school districts that perform poorly on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness.

House Bill 4242 by State Representative Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, comes after recent studies found that the Reading portions of the STAAR tests are too advanced for students to read and understand.

“All we’ve asked to do is to study the readability of the exams…and the way that we score it is a reflection of what students know,” Representative Bernal said during House debate.

HB 4242 would prohibit performance on the 2018-2019 STAAR from determining whether a student is retained at grade level, or whether a school is closed by the state.

The bill would also require the Texas Education Agency to undertake an independent analysis of whether the 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 STAAR exams are written at the appropriate reading level for students. If the study finds that the tests are not written at grade level, penalties for poor performance on the STAAR also would be suspended in the 2019-2020 school year.

State funding for school districts may also be determined by students’ performance on STAAR.

Under the Senate’s version of House Bill 3, a school district could earn extra money based on the performance of 3rd grade students on the STAAR. Teacher bonus pay also could be tied to how students perform on the test.

Last month, Texas A&M University-Commerce released a study that concluded that the STAAR Reading tests were above grade level for students in the 3rd through 8th grades. A study by the same university in 2012, and another by University of Mary Hardin-Baylor researchers in 2016, also found that readability of the STAAR was too difficult.

During floor debate on HB 3 last week, State Senator José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, attempted to attach provisions of HB 4242 onto the massive school finance bill, but the Senate rejected the amendment along party lines.  

The defeat of the Menéndez amendment signals a lack of appetite—especially among Republican senators—to approve such a bill.

A day like no other…

For legislative aficionados, the second Thursday of May—when the Texas Legislature is in session—can rarely be matched for the intrigue and uncertainty that plays out over the course of 12-15 hours on the floor of the House of Representatives.

For the uninitiated, the day probably appears to be 12-15 hours of confusion, delays, boredom and outright chaos.

Under the chamber’s procedural rules, the second Thursday of May is when members decide whether hundreds of House bills—good and bad—live or die. In an attempt to manage the crush of legislative activity in the final two weeks of the 140-day session, the rule requires that all bills and proposed constitutional amendments that originate in the House must be passed by the full House by the second Thursday of May—or they are dead.

Starting its work at 10 a.m., the 150-member House was prepped for a long night in which it tried to pass as many bills as possible before the procedural deadline struck at midnight. Its calendar was 17 pages long and contained more than 200 bills, many of which were all but dead before the day even began.

Among those proposals that died was the controversial bill by State Representative Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, that would have done away with the state's 22:1 student-teacher ratio in classes from kindergarten through the 4th grade. The bill was postponed multiple times throughout the debate, as Representative Stickland dealt with opposition from Democrats and Republicans alike, and tried to amend his proposal to appease detractors.  Near 8 p.m., Representative Stickland finally put the bill up for a vote before it was defeated, 97-44.

Other bills that were rejected, succumbed to parliamentary maneuvering or never received a vote were proposals that would prohibit state government from taking any “adverse action” against someone for their affiliation or support of a religious organization; require that construction footing contractors register with the state; impose state taxes on e-cigarettes and vape products and clarify the definition of “sexual contact” in the prosecution of illegal teacher-student relationships.

Not all these proposals may be completely dead, however.

If a bill has “companion” legislation that has already been approved by the State Senate, it can still move forward in the House. And most legislators—if they really care about their legislation—will try to tack on their proposals as an amendment onto some other bill, if the House Parliamentarian rules that the subject is germane.

Bromance on the rocks…

One of Texas’ most enduring political partnerships is showing signs of wear and tear this legislative session.

For about two decades, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and State Senator Paul Bettencourt have fought for lower property taxes and staunchly conservative causes as collaborators in Houston grassroots politics and talk radio.

But this session, they’re having a public spat.

This week, Senator Bettencourt’s defiance of the state’s Republican leadership helped defeat their plan for a deeper cut in local school property taxes—paid with an extra penny of the sales tax.

Senator Bettencourt’s opposition to the sales tax increase resulted in an embarrassing defeat for Governor Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Patrick. Both had stuck their necks out to try to win voter approval in November of a permanent swap of sales tax for significantly lower school property taxes.

“Governor Abbott and Republican lawmakers are kidding themselves if they think they are doing anything other than ‘Californizing’ Texas,” said Empower Texans leader Michael Quinn Sullivan, in an email blast to supporters, criticizing the proposed tax swap.

After the sales tax proposal died in the House, Lieutenant Governor Patrick took the unusual step of not naming Senator Bettencourt to chair the Senate conference committee that must work with the House to iron-out differences on the property tax limitations bill—legislation that Mr. Bettencourt had authored.  

Instead, Lieutenant Governor Patrick named State Senator Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, to be the Senate’s chief negotiator on Senate Bill 2.

SB 2 would tighten the triggers on property tax rate increase rollback elections for school districts to 2.5 percent more revenue each year. For Texas cities and counties, the rollback rate would be 3.5 percent.

Why have just one, when two are more expensive and less efficient?

John “Rusty” Martin, the chief investment officer of a $10-billion chunk of Texas’ public school endowment, earned a $276,000 “performance bonus” in 2018—enough to cover the salaries of five full-time teachers.

Holland Timmins, the chief investment officer for the remaining $34 billion of the Texas Permanent School Fund, did even better. With a raise and a $297,000 bonus awarded last year, Mr. Timmins is paid more than 10 times the salary of the 2018 Texas Teacher of the Year.

Reporting by the Houston Chronicle reveals that the 165-year-old Permanent School Fund—the largest education endowment in the nation—awards performance bonuses in an unusual way—one that experts say is not an industry “best practice.”

The school fund bases its bonuses on the PFS’s gross return without factoring in how much it pays in fees to outside fund managers, the Houston Chronicle found. It is the net return—the amount that the endowment earns after accounting for fees—that is the critical number for Texas’ schools, which rely upon the $44 billion endowment to help pay for textbooks and other expenses.

The result: Employees of the two agencies who manage the school fund’s endowment were awarded more than $14 million in performance bonuses over the past five years, despite net returns that lagged behind the national average for similar funds, records show.

Bonus pay for some school fund investment managers have more than doubled since 2014, even as teachers across the state begged lawmakers for raises.

The Chronicle reports that Texas schools received less annually from the PSF endowment during the past decade, in real dollars, than they did in the two decades prior. The fund has lost out on billions in revenue because of anemic returns, skyrocketing fees and large cash holdings, the newspaper found.

The fund is controlled by two separate boards that have sparred in recent years over which one earns the best return on its investments, and how the money should be distributed to Texas schools. Currently, PSF investments are controlled by two state agencies, the Texas Education Agency and the General Land Office.  

That has led to duplication. The endowment paid six-figure salaries and bonuses for two chief investment officers and other employees at the two agencies, with overlapping job descriptions.

The four-day work week…

The small Devers school district in deep Southeast Texas will be the latest to move to a four-day instructional week beginning next August.

“The teachers here are pretty happy,” said Devers superintendent Elizabeth Harris.

Devers is already a unique district, in that it educates just 178 students from Pre-Kindergarten through the 8th Grade. There are no high school classes.

“Most of those transfer over to Liberty High School, but we do have students who go to Hull Daisetta, Hardin, Hardin-Jefferson, Legacy in Beaumont, and Dayton as well,” Superintendent Harris said.

“Fridays are not our best days for attendance,” Superintendent Harris admitted. “We leave a lot of money in Austin on Fridays.”

So, the superintendent put pencil to paper, and figured out how four longer school days next year will save Devers some money. She projects saving on cafeteria food, diesel for buses, lights, heating, cooling and other utilities.

Devers does have after-school activities for students in cross country, volleyball, basketball, and track—but no football. Games are scheduled on Mondays and Thursdays, so it will rarely affect the extra-curricular activities except for tournaments.

The Athens school district, in East Texas, will also be going to a four-day week next year.

The Olfen school district, near San Angelo in West Texas, has already implemented a four-day class schedule. 

EduLege is provided by the Texas School Public Relations Association as a service to its members.

Long-time TSPRA member Andy Welch, the retired Communication Director for the Austin School District, compiles and writes EduLege.  Questions or comments may be directed to him at andywelch1@gmail.com.

For more updates on education news from throughout the state, visit the TSPRA website.