“Is this any way to run a state government?”
I asked that question in 1981 when, newly married and two years out of journalism school, I covered a special session of the Texas Legislature. I was young, idealistic and about to get a dose of reality when it came to politics.
I especially recall a freshman legislator from Longview, whose name escapes me, who paid his cousin to shoot him in the arm and raise his political stature (his physical stature was pretty short). When law enforcement authorities tracked him down, he was hiding in a stereo cabinet at his parents' home.
Then there was the legislator who proposed a ludicrous congressional district for South Texas that looked like a dragon. When reporters, including me, pelted him with questions and accused him of gerrymandering, he got his feelings hurt and held a tearful press conference.
That was then. This is now. And now isn't a whole lot better.
The special legislative session has been a circus to watch on two big issues, school finance and redistricting. I spent a day in Austin at a redistricting public hearing last month and came away thankful, once again, that I didn't have to cover this stuff full time. It would drive a reasonably sane person crazy that important decisions are made this way.
The special session ends Wednesday (June 29) and as of this writing Tuesday afternoon, there's still no telling what might come up at the last minute and what that might mean for Somervell County. I'll post stories on our Web site, www.theglenrosereporter.com, as soon as details become available about who our next congressional representative might be and whether the school district gets even more hammered than it appears right now.
Gee, it's almost July. School starts in August. The county has to pass a budget by Oct. 1. Doesn't give them much time to plan, does it?
The congressional redistricting process is moot, anyway, since numerous parties have said they'll file suit against any plan the Lege finally passes and the final decision will likely be made by a court far away in Washington, D.C.
I spoke with County Judge Mike Ford late Tuesday afternoon. Had he seen a new congressional district map? No. I'm glad I'm not the only one who's scratching my head and wondering what's up. Nice to keep folks in the loop about their state government.
However, Ford did say that the county didn't come out as bad as initially feared. Deep law enforcement and justice-related cuts didn't materialize, although the possibility of “unfunded mandates” from the state still could surface as last-minute changes are added to bills.
GRISD Superintendent Wayne Rotan couldn't report a lot to the board of trustees at their meeting Monday night, either, because the Lege still didn't have a school finance bill passed. If legislators can't pass one, the governor may have to call yet another special session. (And you think we can't get things done quickly in Glen Rose? Go down to Austin and see how slowly the wheels of state government turn, if they turn at all. A lot of the time it's political gridlock.)
It does look like over the next biennium, the district will lose $3 million in the best-case scenario. Whoopee. Not a lot to shout about, but it could have been a lot worse with some of the early proposals that would have cut very deep.
“Year One we've got taken care of,” Rotan told the trustees. “Year Two we can handle. It's beyond that that has me concerned.”
The district already has absorbed some positions, meaning it didn't fill open positions. To avoid teacher layoffs, GRISD is considering allowing students to transfer from other districts. It's appointed an advisory committee to study the matter and the committee last week held its first meeting.
School funding is a very complicated matter. Study it long enough and it will give you a headache. Largely because of tax revenues from the Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant, GRISD is considered a “property wealthy” district that must give a large portion of its funding back to the state in “recapture” — the so-called “Robin Hood” scheme that takes away from property wealthy districts and gives to poor districts to equalize funding. The main way the district can increase its revenues and keep more of the money is to increase enrollment, which has fallen in recent years after a spike in 2008-2009 in the height of the gas boom. Last year enrollment fell to 1,645 students, the lowest number since 2003-2004.
“Over the last two years we basically erased five years of growth,” Rotan told the board.
That matters because the district gets $7,887 per student from the state under so-called “weighted average daily attendance.”
Under the Texas Education Code, a school board in a property-wealthy district can reduce its wealth per student by taking transfers. But if it charged the transfers tuition, the state would not allow the district to claim attendance for that student for the purposes of getting credit for providing educational services.
Makes a lot of sense, doesn't it? And as I've pointed out before, GRISD is a rather unique district. It's got a nuke up the road that requires the district to have more buses on hand to evacuate all students and staff.
My opinion isn't going to matter much to the folks in Austin, but there's got to be a better way to redraw lines and finance schools. Some legislators apparently agree, because there's talk of having a commission tackle the next redistricting effort. Of course, getting an objective group that's not politicized will be a huge challenge. But almost anything looks better at this point. Does it make sense to have districts redrawn by those who are in power and in position to protect political friends and punish adversaries?
This past special session shows, once again, that the system isn't working. County officials and schools twist in the political wind and are at the mercy of lawmakers who don't know much about them. Saying that “it could have been worse” doesn't really say a lot about the state of our state government.