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Education centers breathe sigh of relief

By J. Lyn Carl,

Ausitn, TX – Regional education service centers that serve the state's public school system came under fire from Sen. Florence Shapiro as she brought her SB 929 to the Senate floor Wednesday.

Her legislation that would affect the funding mechanism for state funds to the center and provide for an external performance audit passed, but an amendment had centers officials and some concerned school superintendents from across the state breathing a sigh of relief. The amendment removed the funding mechanism addressed in the bill but maintains the audit.

Shapiro said the bill "has no intention of eliminating service centers," and that much misinformation has been distributed regarding the bill.

Shapiro said regional service centers, while providing necessary services in most cases, are "vastly unmonitored institutions" that only account for how federal dollars are spent, with no detailed accounting of how state funds are spent.

She said there is very little information on how the regional service centers serve the state's school districts. She said they have access to $500 million a year in funding and have the ability to charge districts for services they provide. While saying they have "served a good purpose," Shapiro said many of her findings show the centers are capturing expenditures above costs and using those receipts to expand their facilities rather than passing that on to districts they serve."

Shapiro said there currently is no tool for the legislature to assess regional service centers' effectiveness or efficiency.

She said her bill calls for "the accountability of these service centers" and for an audit by the State Comptroller's Office so the legislature can determine where the dollars in the service centers are going.

Sen. Eddie Lucio (D-Brownsville) said he has been "bombarded" by superintendents in his district concerning this issue. He asked Shapiro if her legislation is aimed at taking appropriated funds from service centers for educational programs and using them elsewhere.

Shapiro responded that is not the intent of the bill. "We have absolutely no control over what goes on at those centers," said Shapiro. She said the changes her bill offers, directing the state dollars directly to the school districts instead of to the centers, will not have any effect on federal dollars going to the centers.

Shapiro said the only state dollars involved are those in the current foundation school budget. She said the state gives service centers $58 million for core services - such as programs that school districts need - and then the centers charge the districts for those services. "This amount of money that we're giving back to the districts is money they more than likely will give back to the service center" for payment for services and programs the centers provide, said Shapiro. "But I want the district to make that decision." She said the money will go directly to the district and the district can then contract with the regional service center.

Shapiro said she has no intention of doing away with the service centers, only of providing for a better understanding of the centers and what they do. She said after the comptroller's audit, the legislature in the future can address the effectiveness and efficiency of the regional service centers.

Other members also noted they had heard from school superintendents in their districts who fear repercussions from the legislation

"I'm so disenchanted with the superintendents," said Shapiro. At hearings on the bills, Shapiro said even the superintendents in her own Senate district knew little about the budget, services and programs of the regional service center that serves their school districts.

"This is a quasi-government entity that no one knows anything about and we have no control over," Shapiro said of the regional service centers. She noted $58 million in state money is funneled to the districts and added, "We don't know where it's going or anything about it."

Sen. Robert Duncan (R-Lubbock) offered an amendment that would maintain the study and audit, but not incorporate the method of finance included in the bill.

Shapiro said the most important piece of the bill is the audit. She said once the legislature can get a handle on what is going on in the educational service centers, the legislature in the future can decide what, if anything, should be done. She said the audit will allow the legislature to "peel back that onion and see what is at the core."

Sen. Mario Gallego (D-Houston) questioned the audit process, citing that some of his districts and centers already were recently audited. Shapiro explained that audits of school districts and the centers now are simply financial audits. Her bill proposes performance audits.

Shapiro said the performance audit would provide information not in a financial audit, such as a detailed analysis of the percentage of districts that receives services from the centers, costs for centers to provide the services, costs to the districts for those services, geographic distribution of funds, etc.

Sen. Ken Armbrister (D-Victoria) pointed out that the Commissioner of Education is charged with reviewing of each center's performance and asked why another level of evaluation should be added.

Shapiro said the centers are a "subset" of the Texas Education Agency (TEA). "We have not gotten back the kind of information that is necessary," she said of information that is provided by the centers to TEA. Armbrister said perhaps the Commissioner should be given better directives on exactly what information needs to be delivered. Shapiro said an external audit would likely provide more and better information.

"I thought we were talking about less government," said Armbrister in frustration.

"We will after the audit comes back," responded Shapiro.

Duncan said his amendment removes the portion of the bill dealing with funding, but will provide for an independent audit, which is different than what is currently in statute. "It will allow for an interim study so this body can get involved in evaluation the effectiveness and need for any change in governance and methods of finance," said Duncan.

The amendment was adopted and the bill was passed out of the Senate.