This is Hal Hawkins, candidate for State Representative, District 14. I attended the College Station ISD forum on March 29, and am also the creator and founder of the www.brazosdebtclock.org that was part of that discussion. Your school officials asked you to reach out to your candidates about education. I think we should have a discussion on the future of education, both locally, and at the State level. Discussing how to put education and its funding back on track cannot be done in a sound bite, so please bear with me.
I have spoken with many teachers in our district, and they reflect our community. They also reflect my family as my father, mother, aunt, uncle, grandmother, grandfather were/are all teachers. Teachers go to school every day to do the absolute best for our children and community and deserve high praise. I believe that we all want what is best for our children, and given the opportunity, will work together to give our children the brightest futures.
A large problem with our current funding and curriculum systems is that it is impossible to put the community’s stamp on education with the mandates that come from the upper echelons of government. The Republican Party of Texas has several ideas in its platform for improving local education. I would like discuss these ideas on how we can comprehensively improve how we pay for and provide education. Those platform proposals include child-centered funding, local control, and the eventual move to a consumption (sales) taxes instead of property taxes to pay for education.
So, let’s look at a few issues facing the next legislature and how to work together to solve this funding crisis.
Texas is bound by two contradicting constitutional amendments that ensure an eternal argument about funding. It is constitutionally bound to provide an equitable education for every child in Texas, yet it is also constitutionally bound to keep its hands off property taxes, the source of about 50% of school funding. The complex funding formula we have is a direct result of decades of bouncing between the solid idea of equity and the difficulty of no direct control over about 50% of the funding to provide it.
To solve the funding problem, we must allow local school districts as equal partners in funding. This means giving control to the local districts and having the state devise a child-centered funding formula which assigns a set dollar amount the state will pay (from sales taxes and the lottery) for each child’s education. The state should eliminate the “Robin Hood Rule” and let the local districts keep their revenues and set their rates. Local control of funding means that a motivated public could hold those boards even more accountable at the ballot box. With full local control of property tax funding, I believe that we will find the best balance for educating OUR children and make local districts true equal partners with the State on funding.
Our Republican Party of Texas platform calls for moving towards consumption taxes, thereby eliminating property taxes for education. I fully support this proposal, for it would make everyone a partner in funding and would not disproportionally affect elderly homeowners that are “property rich” despite living on a fixed budget.
I support capping the salaries for superintendents and assistant superintendents. For example, in CSISD, the district-wide, average teacher salary has dropped $1000 per teacher in the last 3 years; however, superintendent and assistant superintendent salaries have increased $10,200 and $7,690, respectively. If Texas capped superintendent salaries at the governor’s salary ($150,000) and assistant superintendent salaries at $110,000, our schools would save tens of millions statewide. When we are facing budget shortfalls, we should not be exclusively punishing our teachers and students. School revenues should begin in the classroom, not finish there.
Another idea I propose and was advocated by former Rep. Fred Brown is consolidating schools district to county school districts. This would reduce the number of school districts in Texas from over a thousand to less than 254 (some smaller counties in West Texas and the Panhandle would likely combine their resources). Consolidation would eliminate layers of bureaucracy and administrative overhead, thus saving schools even more funds that can be better used in the classroom.
For Brazos County, consolidation would mean that property taxes would be divided countywide. If we are going to address equitability in communities like ours, we must address the funding gaps between our major school districts. We can either continue to let Austin dictate those terms or take the matter into our own hands. County ISDs would help “level the playing field” not just in Brazos County, but also for similar districts across the State. We would be far better off to get Austin out of the equation and work together directly to do the right thing for all the children in our community.
Retired teachers have not been given a cost of living adjustment in over a decade. The last time there was a COLA in 2001 gas was $1.46/gallon. It has since nearly tripled, and those who are on a fixed income struggle when variable costs like gas increase dramatically. We cannot afford to spend from general revenue, but the TRS fund can accommodate a COLA. Here is a proposal from the head of the TRS, and I support it:
The TRS should be allowed to issue a “13th check” to retirees in years when doing so will still yield an 8% Return on Investment to the fund. According to the TRS, this would have allowed for FOUR extra checks in the last decade. This proposal would allow for us to protect the fund in poor performing years and provide assistance to our retirees without impacting Texas’ budget.
Additionally, I do NOT support making a major change to the TRS retirement system. The TRS pension fund is in relatively good shape with $107 billion in assets. At current levels, the fund will be in good shape for several decades. I do not trust politicians in Austin to be fair about teacher retirement when so much money is at stake. I believe we need to protect the hard earned retirements of Texas teachers. Since there is no economic advantage for Texas to make a major change at this time, we should listen to stakeholders. I have listened, and our TRS stakeholders, the teachers and retirees, overwhelmingly do not want this change.
I am the founder and creator of www.brazosdebtclock.org and is the first local debt clock in the entire country. I believe that it is important keep a hawk’s eye on public debt. I have heard and spoken with several school officials since the clock was launched, and they all said the same thing: the voters voted for all of it. That is a cop out in my book and a defensive accusation, especially since it is the administration and school board who actually approves and places the bond packages on the ballot. To suggest that school administrators have no control over increasing school debt is simply untrue. As elected officials, administrators and board members have a fiduciary responsibility to manage our tax dollars wisely. Our debt load is quickly becoming unsustainable and future boards will be required to make far different debt decisions. In CSISD alone, 25% of property tax revenues are allocated to debt service. Our current board members and school officials should take responsibility for the debt they helped create instead of pointing fingers at you.
Finally, May elections have had very low turnout and school boards have depended upon that turnout to pass its bonds. The Republican Party of Texas platform calls for November bond elections and a requirement that 25% of registered voters must vote in a bond election to make it valid. The federal MOVE (Military and Overseas Voter Enhancement) Act and its state complement, SB100, recently affected a change in our local elections. As a result, our local elections will now happen in November. I believe this is a positive development because more people will participate in the process of determining debt approval. Going forward, we must take a hard look at the impact current debt will have on our current taxpayers and future generations and governments.
I believe that the best decisions are can be made here at home. Given the opportunity, we can create a truly excellent educational environment for our kids. Instead of asking Austin to intervene MORE in the education of our children, we should be demanding that they interfere LESS.