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Krum, Ponder ISDs brace for loss of millions in state funding

With a state legislative session dominated by divisive issues, the state of public school finance reform was left in the air, much to the chagrin of area superintendents who could stand to lose millions of state dollars.

Following a Texas Supreme Court decision that pointed to the flaws of the current school finance system, reform was a top priority for lawmakers going into the biennial session. In the end, disagreements between the House and Senate about a school voucher system killed a sweeping school finance bill.

"The inability to get together politically got in the way of doing what's best for children," Ponder ISD Superintendent Bruce Yeager said Wednesday. "That's just sad to all of us in the education community."

The biggest piece of proposed school finance legislation — House Bill 21 — was declared dead days before the regular session ended after House Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty, R-Houston, refused to accept a Senate change that would allow parents of special needs children to use public funds for private education. Senate Education Committee Chairman Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, then declined to appoint conference committee members to hash out a compromise.

Under the original House version, public schools would receive an additional $1.5 billion in funding. The Senate changes brought the amount down to $530 million, but the bill still attempted to tweak some of the more complex finance formulas. It also included a grant program that would help school districts who rely on a state aid mechanism known as Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction, or ASATR.

The mechanism was introduced in 2006 as legislators worked to reduce property taxes. The funding was set aside to make sure districts that had to lower their tax rates did not lose money. But with a lack of decision in the Legislature and ASATR funding set to expire in September, Krum and Ponder ISDs — along with nearly 200 other school districts — will feel the effects of the loss in the coming months.

"There was a promise made when this started that schools wouldn't lose money," Yeager said. "That promise is no longer being kept."

Krum ISD will see $2.9 million in ASATR funding disappear, money that makes up about 15 percent of the district's $19 million budget this year. Ponder ISD will lose $2.6 million in ASATR funding, or 22 percent of its $11.8 million budget.

"We're under the gun to adopt the budget," Krum Superintendent Cody Carroll said Wednesday. "We've absorbed several positions because of retirement and things like that. We're not going to do away with programs or any other staff. We're going to try to get by with some balance for the next two years. Hopefully by the next session, they'll really come up with a solution."

Both superintendents said their school boards were prepared for the loss and have enough money tucked away in their general fund balance to cushion the blow. However, both districts will have to come up with fiscal solutions to keep their doors open, which could include some deep cuts to staff and programming.

"I've been doing this a long time," Yeager said. "I know where money is and where it's expended. Eighty percent of the school budget is payroll. If you want to make meaningful change, you have to make some adjustments there."

There's still a possibility that Gov. Greg Abbott could call legislators back for a special session and include school finance on the agenda. While they wait for Abbott to make that decision, Yeager and Carroll are holding fast to the old adage of hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst.

"Right now, the only thing we can do is make sure the governor knows how bad it will hurt if this funding is not restored or put back into place," Carroll said. "There's just got to be some relief."

CAITLYN JONES can be reached at 940-566-6862.