SBISD Board of Trustees Response to Senator Bettencourt’s May 4, 2023, Open Letter to Spring Branch ISD District Residents and the State of Texas Budget
As the 88th Texas Legislature draws to a close much work remains regarding public education. Our board and administration have been working to finalize the district’s 2023-24 budget, but, unfortunately, we are having to do this work with no clue as to what the legislature’s final appropriations will be for public schools. With a required budget adoption deadline prior to July 1, 2023, this puts the district and the board in a very difficult spot.
Members of our community have recently received a legislative update from Senator Paul Bettencourt, who represents part of Spring Branch ISD (SBISD). As your Trustees, we want to address items in his message that are inaccurate.
Since last fall, SBISD has been transparent to our community and our legislators, strongly communicating the key fiscal legislative priorities needed to maintain the excellence that our students deserve and our community expects, including:
- $1,000 per student increase in the basic allotment to address inflation since 2019,
- full credit for the 20% local optional homestead exemption, and
- adjustments to address recapture.
We also have advocated for maximum flexibility in any appropriation to meet the unique needs of our district and retain our outstanding educators.
Here are some points about which we disagree with Senator Bettencourt’s assertions:
- Senator Bettencourt says it is not true that the state is cutting public education dollars. We beg to differ. In fact, the Senate reallocated $8.3 billion of current year excess education dollars to benefit the state’s bottom line (SB 30). With only $5 billion allocated for public school funding in both chambers, this certainly seems like a $3 billion cut to us.
- Senator Bettencourt references a $2,000 raise for all Texas teachers. To date, the Senate has not proposed any permanent salary increase for Texas teachers and other public school employees. While Senator Bettencourt has voted for a 5% raise ($3,000 minimum) for state employees, public school employees do not garner the same respect. Instead, the Texas Senate has proposed a one-time, one-year salary stipend for 2023-2024 for teachers, nurses, librarians, and counselors, but not for other staff. After one year, under the Senate proposal, this stipend is no longer funded. This in essence becomes an unfunded mandated requiring the Board to reduce or eliminate the stipend, cut staff and programs to maintain it, or raise property taxes to pay for it (which voters would have to approve, knowing the State would recapture a significant amount, based on current law).
- Senator Bettencourt argues the state lacks the financial resources to replace the federal ESSER funds allocated to help the district address learning loss following the COVID pandemic. We have not asked the state to replace these dollars. Rather, SBISD and districts across the state have asked for a $1,000 per student increase in the Basic Allotment to address the inflationary costs we have been required to cover through ESSER funding since the adoption of House Bill 3 in 2019. ESSER dollars are now gone, and the state has not increased the Basic Allotment since then, while inflation keeps spiking at 14 % or more. An increase in the Basic Allotment, with flexibility included, would help us cover the district’s operating costs including salaries, utilities, fuel and maintenance for buses, programs and services, which in many cases are outside of the district’s control. Increasing the Basic Allotment also reduces Recapture.
Please also note, the state encouraged districts to use ESSER funds to address inflation in recent years. Additionally, instead of using state funds allocated for public education, the state required SBISD to use $18 million of our ESSER federal funds for closure and enrollment hold harmless that the state promised us. This meant we didn’t have these funds to support learning loss and cover the inflationary impacts we have experienced. Had the state used its own funding, these additional dollars would have remained in SBISD and would have eased the current situation in which we find ourselves.
- Senator Bettencourt notes record property tax legislation is expected. While we support tax relief, we have repeatedly stated that with a $33 billion surplus, the state can do both – give property owners relief AND properly fund public education.
- Spring Branch ISD and many other school districts must have some relief from Recapture. As a reminder, we are the 39th largest district in Texas, yet we pay the 10th highest recapture payment. This is not sustainable. This year, SBISD will send over $82 million of local property taxes to the State. This amount is 23% of all maintenance and operations property taxes paid by District taxpayers, or over $2,400 per student.
Though the Texas Constitution prohibits a state property tax, the Texas Legislature has become dependent on local property taxes to pay for state expenditures. If recapture of local property taxes were treated as a state tax, it would be one of the state’s largest revenue sources. In essence, recapture of local property taxes has freed up state funds to be spent elsewhere in the state budget, rather than being reinvested in public schools. Do you believe this might be a state property tax?
- Senator Bettencourt makes the statement that “[t]he State of Texas is required to pass a balanced budget every biennium. However, that is not true for independent school districts like Spring Branch.” All Texas public school boards are required to adopt a budget every year, and Texas law prohibits any expenditure by a school district that is not included in that adopted budget or an approved amendment. In some years, the Board may pass a deficit budget to ensure the district does not risk overspending in a functional category which would be prohibited by law. For 21 straight years, SBISD has earned the highest rating in the state’s own Financial Integrity Rating System of Texas (FIRST).
- Senator Bettencourt also mentioned the potential reduction or elimination of SBISD’s local optional homestead exemption (LOHE) of 20%. We do not currently plan to reduce or eliminate the LOHE, but as we discussed with Senator Bettencourt, SBISD loses about $5 million every year simply because we have a LOHE. Spring Branch ISD is one of about 230 public school districts in Texas that has adopted this important property tax relief for our homeowners, and we have maintained it every year. But, if the state fails to provide the flexible funding SBISD needs or fails to reduce the state’s dependence on recaptured local property taxes, we will have to look at all alternatives to protect our bottom line. We ask Senator Bettencourt – if you support property tax relief for homeowners, why have you not sponsored any proposal to eliminate the penalty the state imposes on school districts like SBISD that grant property tax relief through the LOHE?
As we continue to fight to #FullyfundSBISD, we thank you for your support and your incredible advocacy to date. We will not give up. Our children are our bottom line.
On behalf of the SBISD Board of Trustees,
Chris Earnest, President