State representative advocates bill to help Cy-Fair ISD
State Rep. Gary Elkins made his first appearance before the House Education Committee earlier this month to propose a bill on one of Cy-Fair Independent School District's most controversial subjects: eliminating its homestead exemption.
Elkins, R-Houston, a staunch conservative, isn't interested in seeing the 20 percent homestead exemption disappear in Cy-Fair, but he wants to make sure that if trustees are forced to take up the issue to deal with a budget shortfall, then the district's coffers will reap the full benefit of such a vote.
This is the first time in Elkins' 17 years in the Legislature that he has filed a bill that deals with education, an indication of his level of concern over the budget shortfall and potential cuts to education. Even lawmakers who have never dealt hands-on with school finance, like Elkins, are looking for ways to minimize the budget blow, which has led to hundreds of job cuts around Houston-area school districts.
As Elkins explained in committee, and school finance guru Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, confirmed, aspects of the school finance bill passed last session limit the financial benefit a school district could gain from eliminating an optional homestead exemption. House Bill 839 would correct that. Elkins' bill was left pending in committee on April 5.
"My district is penalized for having an exemption, and they are penalized for trying to reduce or eliminate that optional homestead exemption," Elkins said.
Hochberg explained the problem was a type of "circuit breaker" inserted into last session's school finance bill that made sure no district stood to gain more than $350 per student in any given year due to a financial action. Excess revenue from districts above that amount was rolled into paying for the bill, which also included a pay raise for the state's teachers and was funded by stimulus money, Hochberg said.
Elkins' bill takes the homestead exemption out of the funding formula so that the district could gain the full benefit of eliminating the provision.
"I don't think anybody anticipated what would happen if a school district chose to give up a homestead exemption, not because it was intentional but because we just didn't think about it," Hochberg admitted. "Of course, if the district chose to phase out the homestead exemption, they would still get the full benefit of it."
Still, Cy-Fair ISD Board President John Ogletree recently said the board, at this point, has indicated no appetite for looking at the homestead exemption as a source of new revenue. An effort by Superintendent David Anthony to reduce the exemption in 2009 failed.
Meanwhile, the state House and Senate continue to grapple with ways to address the budget shortfall and its impact on public education. The Senate is proposing cuts to education that are about half that of the House, but senators are still on the hunt for about $6 billion in recurring non-tax revenue to devote to public education expenditures.
According to the most recent information from Cy-Fair ISD, the district could lose between $65 million and $116 million in the upcoming budget, even after slashing $73 million over the last four years. Cy-Fair is the largest school district rated as Recognized by the state, with some of the lowest per-pupil expenditures. That's made it easier for conservative lawmakers, such as Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, to champion the district's concerns.
Patrick, who serves as vice chair of the Senate Education Committee, also sits on the Finance subcommittee charged with finding additional non-tax revenue. He has pledged to prioritize available dollars for education and has frequently noted the challenges that a baseline budget with no student enrollment growth in it presents for a fast-growth school district such as Cy-Fair.
"I think that we are still seven weeks from the final budget," said Patrick. "My focus always has remained the same: balance the budget, no new taxes, prioritize education.
"I think Cy-Fair, at the end of the day, is going to see cuts in the range of 4 percent to 6 percent, which are very manageable, and maybe less," Patrick said.
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