The 87th Texas Legislative Session begins in January, and I believe it will be one of the most difficult we’ve had in decades. COVID-19 is having a dramatic effect on all of us, and we do not yet know how extensive this pandemic will affect the state budget and, in turn, public education funding in Texas. The potential reduction to the education budget next session comes after HB 3 made sweeping changes to the way schools are financed while pumping an additional $6.5 billion into public education. The high cost of HB 3 was dependent on a growing Texas economy and will be difficult to maintain with high unemployment, plunging oil and gas prices, and reduced sales and property tax revenue to the state and local budgets.
What we do know for certain is that it will take great fiscal restraint to make ends meet, from both the state and school districts. This shouldn’t surprise us since the citizens of Texas are experiencing the same restraints at home.
Without question, we will need fiscally responsible leadership across all of Texas. Just as the legislature should be thinking of how to stretch every dollar and reduce spending, local school boards and administrators must do the same now. Calls for dipping into the state’s rainy day fund should also include school districts dipping into their fund balances. After all, it’s not their money. It is the taxpayers’ money.
Taxing entities across the state have benefited in the past from a strong economy and increasing real estate values, but things have changed. Today, millions of Texans are unemployed or unable to work because the government has forced businesses to close and people to stay in their homes. With this much loss of income in the private sector, this is not the right time to approve pay increases for school district staff.
The reality is, some programs may need to be temporarily suspended or cut. Just as Texas families and businesses are having to do, school districts and the State of Texas will also have to make difficult cuts. One thing we must not compromise on or cut is our teachers. Teachers are the backbone of our education system, and they should feel secure in their jobs, despite the grim outlook. The priority of our public schools should be education, and that can only be accomplished by teachers, and it’s unfortunate that this is where many school districts threaten to cut first.
Last year when we passed HB 3, we encouraged districts to give good raises to classroom teachers, with an emphasis on extra incentives for those with five or more years in the classroom. The same thought continues, but perhaps districts ought to give raises in an incentive bonus format as opposed to fixed costs. This will protect districts in the future, should additional spending reductions be necessary.
My colleagues and I are going to have to make tough decisions this next session. This is not the time for “business as usual” and “hope for the best.” This is the time where we need to roll up our sleeves and get to work for the betterment of students across Texas. We have an opportunity to revolutionize the way we educate our children. Dorye Roettger once said, “There are no problems—only opportunities to be creative.” This is the perfect time for creativity. I look forward to working with my colleagues and school districts to tackle the challenge that lies ahead.
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