Monday, January 28, 2008

School Board to Robin Hood: Bug Off!

A school district in South Central Texas is either really brave or really stupid...maybe a little of both.

But first, some background: I don't know if any other state does this, but Texas education has been under something that's informally known as the "Robin Hood" plan for many years now (I think the official name is "recapture"). The way it works is that if a school district is considered "property-wealthy" by the state, it is required to send a certain amount of its property tax revenues back to Austin to be redistributed to "property-poor" districts.

But what happens if the "wealthy" district is itself strapped for cash and really can't afford to part with its money? Such is the case in Wimberley, where the school district is saying "enough" and planning to defy the order:
Protests from this small school district nestled in the Texas Hill Country are reverberating across the state's school finance landscape.

Wimberley is one of more than 160 high-wealth school districts – including several in the Dallas area – that are required to share their property tax revenue with other districts. But residents here insist that their students will suffer if they turn the money over to the state.

"We're not going to pay it," said Gary Pigg, vice president of the Wimberley school board and a small-business owner. "Our teachers are some of the lowest-paid in the area. Our buildings need massive repairs. We keep running a deficit – and they still want us to give money away.

"It's unconstitutional – and I'm ready to go to jail if I have to."

Mr. Pigg and the rest of the Wimberley school board voted last fall to withhold the payment of an estimated $3.1 million in local property taxes – one-sixth of the district's total revenue – that was supposed to be sent to the state under the share-the-wealth school finance law passed in 1993. The law was passed in response to a series of court orders calling for equalized funding among school districts.
Part of me admires their spunk, their defiant attitude. Certainly, the legislators who passed this ridiculous law, and the bureaucrats who administer it, deserve this sort of contempt, and more. But another part of me says, "Are these guys crazy?" After all, their defiance could have serious consequences:
The first payment this year from Wimberley is due Feb. 15, and Texas Education Agency officials and Wimberley schools Superintendent Dwain York have been looking for a way to avert the first instance of a school district refusing to share its property taxes under the 15-year-old law.

State Education Commissioner Robert Scott and the TEA have remained firm that if the situation can't be resolved, Mr. Scott will be required to take steps to dissolve the 2,000-student school district and annex it to a neighboring district, mostly likely the San Marcos or Hays school district.

"There is no option for the commissioner," said Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the education agency. "If they refuse to make payments, Wimberley must be consolidated with a lower-wealth district."
Aarrrgh--what a mess. So why is this system even in place, if it's causing so many problems?
Lawmakers had hoped to do away with the unpopular Robin Hood system when they passed a massive school finance reform law in 2006, but the wide disparities in property wealth among districts made that impossible – so long as education funding continues to be heavily dependent on local property taxes.

The new system significantly reduced the amount of revenue taken from high-wealth districts – by almost half – but the figure is still expected to reach about $1.1 billion this year.
One of the big problems I have with the Robin Hood idea is that it sounds a little too much like this for my personal taste. And the way it's affecting Wimberley is borderline criminal:
The cutbacks have been particularly frustrating for the school board members because they have seen the beneficiaries of the Robin Hood system avoid such constraints.

"We're giving money to supposedly poor school districts that are giving their teachers raises every year, and in some cases, using that money to buy buses for their football teams," Mr. Pigg said.

Meanwhile, he added, Wimberley has been ranked "recognized," the second-highest rating, by the state, while some districts receiving Wimberley's property taxes have been rated "academically unacceptable. "

In discussions with state officials, Mr. York said, "They tell us our only hope is to either cut teachers or raise taxes. Those are two pretty pathetic answers."
I have an idea here: If people really want to untie school funding from local property taxes, then the state government needs to decide how much it should cost per student to fund a "basic education" and then themselves kick in a certain amount so that every district has the means to supply that basic education. Anything above that (local enrichment) is up to the citizens of each district. And no whining about some people being able to raise more money than others; there are individuals in society who will choose a certain district because of the "extras" and throw down plenty of their own cash to fund them. If the basic education is covered by the state, then local enrichment shouldn't be a problem. After all, we should be trying to guarantee equal opportunity, not equal outcomes.

So what's going to happen to Wimberley? Will they really defy the state, and will the state really shut them down
Local school officials said they will continue to negotiate with the state as the Feb. 15 deadline approaches, looking for common ground, such as a proposal to allow the district to stretch out its Robin Hood payments.

"The TEA is just as worried about this as we are," Mr. York said. "They know how bad it would look if they consolidate a recognized school district – one that has a 98 percent graduation rate – with a lesser district. What kind of message would that send?"
It would send the message that the system is broken and needs to be fixed. And I hope that the Wimberley district doesn't have to fall on its own sword to get that message across.

The porn tax, the jock tax and the moonshiner tax: in the meantime, here's a story about some creative ways that cash-strapped states are using creative new taxes to raise revenue. (Included is Texas' "pole tax," an extra levy on strip joints.)

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