Special Session Begins

Today in Austin, the Texas legislature opens its third special session in two years, to make another try at finding a new way to pay for public schools. Houston Public Radio's Jim Bell reports.

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The Texas Supreme Court has declared the current funding method using property taxes is unconstitutional, and has ordered lawmakers to overhaul the system by June first, or the court will close the schools and do it for them. It's complicated by the governor's insistence on cutting local school property taxes first, and replacing the lost revenue with new taxes. A task force appointed to come up with suggestions is recommending a combination of a business tax and higher taxes on tobacco products.

Houston State Representative Scott Hochberg doesn't think this session will produce a permanent solution. Hochberg thinks lawmakers -- never eager to raise taxes in an election year -- will do a one-time fix using money from the state's four billion dollar revenue surplus and pass the problem on to the next regular session in January.

"The court merely said that local districts had to have discretion to fund programs on their own, beyond what the state absolutely mandates. And one way to do that would be to simply take the money that's sitting in the treasury right now, pay it to the schools in exchange for a dollar for dollar reduction in property tax rates, meet the firm language of the court deadline and do nothing else."

School boards are watching this session with some apprehension. Spring Branch ISD board member Mike Falick says lawmakers must solve this problem and take some of the burden off Texas homeowners.

"What we've done in the state of Texas is that we've gone from a system that was 60 percent funded by the state, to a system in many of our districts that's funded less than 20 percent. In Spring Branch it's zero, because we're a Robin Hood district, and I think what's happened is you've put the cost of public education on the backs of home owners, and I think we're at a breaking point in the system, quite frankly. I think that there has to be something done to reduce the burden on homeowners."

Houston School Board President Diana Davila is cautiously optimistic. She says most lawmakers realize how their inability to solve this problem is hurting school districts, especially big urban districts like HISD.

"And I think that's the reason so many boards, so many of our communities, so many of our constituencies, have really gone on advocating to our legislators to explain to them, this is how you're squeezing our school districts, and this is how you're hurting our children. I don't think we've done enough of that advocacy (in the past), but I think now we've done enough of it and I think our legislators have heard us."

Davila wonders if lawmakers can do what needs to be done in 30 days. She thinks it might take two back to back sessions. One session or two, Mike Falick of Spring Branch says a court takeover of the schools would be the worst possible outcome, and no politician wants to come home and explain that to their voters.

"I think that would be a death sentence, a political death sentence, for a number of our legislators if that was where we ended up."

The special session convenes today at the state capital in Austin. Jim Bell, Houston Public Radio News.

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