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Why North Texas School Districts Are Turning To Voters For More Funding

Bill Zeeble
Left to right: Dallas Superintendent Michael Hinojosa, Plano's Superintendent Sara Bonser, and Garland Superintendent Ricardo Lopez tell Dallas Regional Chamber members that education resources are tight, in part, because of state education funding cuts.

Voters in the Dallas, Frisco and Richardson school districts will decide on tax ratification elections, or TREs, this November. These tax measures, which have becoming increasingly popular ballot items in the last decade, are meant to generate millions for school districts.

As the Texas population keeps growing, the state’s prospering. That combination used to help school districts financially, but not any more, says Joy Baskin, the legal services director of the Texas Association of School Boards.

“Over the last several years, the state’s share of funding that it dedicates to public education has decreased and the reliance on local property taxation has increased,” Baskin said.

School funds come from both the state and from local property taxes, which have been rising. Yet those extra property tax dollars are not staying in districts, according to Wayne Pierce. He runs the Children’s Advocacy Project in Austin’s Equity Center, a school finance organization.

“The state has not increased the basic allotment in the last four years,” Pierce said. “That’s the foundation part of school funding — stayed stagnant. Values go up. Taxpayers know that. So when whenever the tax collections increase, all that means is that state funding decreases equivalently and school districts don’t have any more money.”

School districts call on voters

That leaves districts like Dallas scrambling for cash. Superintendent Michael Hinojosa says the TRE trustees are putting before voters on Nov. 6 will fund pricey but proven programs like early childhood education. Choice schools, like recently opened, single-sex science and technology campuses, which Hinojosa says have helped attract families back to the district, costs millions. He told a recent Dallas Regional Chamber lunch crowd there’s more.

“Our collegiate academy initiative, that costs us $15 million a year, two years in a row, just to launch…” the superintendent told the audience.

Hinojosa says the district's Accelerating Campus Excellence (ACE) program, which has put money and top teachers into struggling schools, has improved every failing campus where it’s been used. But he says it’s so expensive he’s had to cut part of the program. He’s laid out plans for a tax ratification election that would add $126 million to the budget because he figures he’ll get no funding help from lawmakers.

Dallas isn’t alone. This November, Richardson and Frisco are also calling TREs. They take advantage of a district’s two-part budget. One part pays for maintenance and operations  — the M&O —  the other pays off debt. Districts want voters to raise the M&O portion. In Dallas, that would cost median-priced homeowners $240 a year. In Richardson, the annual hike would cost the average homeowner $305.40.

Frisco’s designed its TRE so taxes will not go up if voters approve it — the rate would actually drop.  

Some TREs pass, and others fail

TREs are increasingly popular. Since 2006, more than 500 Texas districts have called them, with dozens approved in North Texas. Not all pass. Two years ago Frisco voters rejected one, so Frisco ISD’s trying again. Last month, Cedar Hill voters said no to a TRE.

Joy Baskin, with the  Texas Association of School Boards, says when TREs fail, voters probably didn’t want to raise their own taxes.  

“You know, voting in their own self-interest not to pay more in taxes. In part because they've not been persuaded that the community will receive adequate value for increase in taxations,” Baskin said.

She’s also seen TREs fail from voter fatigue.

“There are numerous taxing entities in any given location and if the hospital district and the water district and everybody else has added money over the recent time, the voters may just be disinclined to agree to raise taxes," she said. 

Five years ago, Plano voters approved a TRE. But now, Superintendent Sara Bonser says she needs more money to tackle new challenges.

“We are now 30 perent economically disadvantaged,” Bonser said. “We want the same gold standard for all of our students and those 30 percent of our kids — that takes more innovation, more time, attention and expertise and all of those things take resources."

Bonser says without more state funding, she may have to cut some programs to move money where it’s needed more.

Garland ISD hasn’t called a TRE, but Superintendent Ricardo Lopez says he needs more dollars just to stay competitive. Not only does he say his teachers are underpaid, he wants to launch innovative programs with proven track records.

“When we look at the amount of money that the state is putting into each and every child they talk about,” Lopez said, “we’ve got to remember we have more kids in the system than we did 10 years ago. We have over five million and that is only going up. We need to have the funds and vision to support those efforts.”

Districts in North Texas say they have the vision to improve education for their students. They just lack the resources. 

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.