Although taxpayers within Houston ISD’s boundaries rejected a November ballot proposal to send $162 million to the state’s Robin Hood program, the Board of Trustees is asking voters for a do-over.

If voters once again reject the recapture ballot proposition and HISD fails to remit the payment to the state, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath has stated his office will detach and reassign parts of the district’s tax base to less affluent school districts.

Many taxpayers voiced concern over the removal of the tax base and thus revenue from the school district. Although HISD is technically considered by the state to be “property rich” because of its commercial properties, many of its actual students come from low-income households.

The new deal offered by Morath would require HISD to send $77.5 million to the state, almost $100 million less than before, or be subject to the removal of $8 billion of non-residential, commercial properties from the district’s tax rolls. However, HISD still has to bring that question to the taxpayers for approval.

Robin Hood, or “recapture”, is the state’s school funding scheme which requires districts considered “property wealthy” to send money back to the state to be distributed to “property poor” school districts.

The system is inherently flawed and effectively results in a few communities subsidizing the school programs of a large amount of other communities, it also encourages “donor” school districts to make poor financial decisions.

While the board ultimately passed the agenda item calling for an election, trustees were very split on the issue.

Trustee Jolanda Jones urged against sending the money to recapture:

“We have motivated the rest of the State of Texas to stand up to TEA and the Legislature, do not be fooled by these Chicken Little tactics, we have power,” said Jones. “The commissioner is not an elected official, why are we taking orders from a non-elected official?”

Siding with her was Trustee Diana Davila, who argued “the legislature is listening only because the voters of Houston voted to keep our money here” and shamed Commissioner Morath.

Those in support of calling the election, and sending the payment, had a different take:

“The legislature has it out for HISD. They sat in their offices last week and told us that. They cursed us out, I sat there and took it, I let them disrespect me. They hate HISD,” said Trustee Rhonda Skillern-Jones before continuing to explain that they should send the money to the TEA to ensure they don’t attempt to take over the district.

The board members opposed to sending the money to recapture are essentially hoping to force the legislature’s hand and make them address the school funding model. Those in favor of sending the money are hoping that it will allow them to remain in control and not have TEA mandates forced upon them.

Trustee Mike Lunceford – the only one to acknowledge the impact on taxpayers – made the point that detachment will have a significant negative impact on residential property owners. Targeted first for detachment should the measure fail are several high-priced commercial buildings.

Pulling commercial buildings from the tax base would force residential taxpayers to bear more of the burden of tax increases to cover district costs.

Trustees passed the measure 5 to 3, with newly-elected Anne Sung abstaining from the vote, and have set a special election on May 6th. Though trustees had until February 17th to call a May 6th election, which would have been more reasonable as it would have given the administration time to provide information regarding potential tax increases, they chose to move forward anyway.

If the ballot proposal passes this time, HISD will send the reduced payment to the state. Should that not occur, the detachment and reassignment of property would begin in July and would, reportedly, be the first time for that to happen in Texas history. However, with the legislature currently in session, this problem could be solved legislatively.

Charles Blain

Charles Blain is the president of Urban Reform and Urban Reform Institute. A native of New Jersey, he is based in Houston and writes on municipal finance and other urban issues.