Former president Donald Trump may have beaten current President Joe Biden by a mile in rural areas of West Texas, but school district leaders there warn of dire consequences regarding resources if a GOP-backed voucher plan is passed and no other significant efforts are made to bolster funding for public schools.
As Gov. Greg Abbott’s whistlestop type of tour of the state continues to push the so-called “school choice” plan, he and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick are both pushing hard for a school voucher program.
But in Jeff Davis County, one rural school district in a GOP stronghold of the state is sounding the alarm about just how dire the consequences could be.
Fort Davis is an unincorporated community in Jeff Davis County, with an estimated population of less than 1500 residents, and is the county seat.
According to Graydon Hicks, Superintendent of Fort Davis Independent School District, the West Texas district will be bankrupt by 2024 — without a significant boost in state funding, he said that diverting any state funds toward vouchers would make the situation worse.
But he noted that vouchers are only one potential threat to the lifespan of the district. With only 185 total students from pre-K through 12th grade, and no viable local infrastructure beyond ranching, the school has no cafeteria, no buses, and the school’s buildings are approximately 100 years old and are in need of repair.
“We didn’t have a music program for over ten years because we just couldn’t afford it, but a local benefactor stepped up to fund it,” Hicks said.
“Treating Cancer With A Steroid Shot”
Hicks, who wrote a report last month for the district, pointed out that the Legislative Budget Board’s website has talked about raising property values and decreasing school funding accordingly since around 2016 — he found that property values in his county have gone up 100 percent since 2016 — despite only about a dozen real estate transactions during any given year in that period.
He explained that the state’s financial system essentially fines the district $200,000 per year in repayments for lost attendance and other financial calculations based on real estate values in the area, in addition to another $30,000 in what is known as the “recapture” mechanism, otherwise known as “Robin Hood” in state finance laws.
“So, since some of the property in the area are ranches, the state says we’re rich,” Hicks mused, as the state funding model sees the area as wealthy, and therefore limits public school funding accordingly.
He explained that the state’s ability to override county property valuations at-will unfairly and inaccurately measures the funding equation — by cherry picking a small number of high end real estate sales comparisons as part of their funding calculations — ultimately punishing districts like his, from all over the state, every year.
“We have a $600,000 deficit budget this year, and the same is anticipated next year. We will only receive about $50,000 in state funds after recapture and overpayments are taken into account,” Hicks said. “House Bill 3, while perhaps being well intentioned, is like trying to treat cancer with a steroid shot.”
Real estate comparisons assign value to a property based on the recent sale price of properties that are similar — which Hicks maintains does not exist in Fort Davis — given the age and disparity of the types of properties, with some being legacy ranch properties, versus building development housing.
Hicks said he believes the entire funding system would have to change for districts like his to survive. And the issue is deeply personal to him and a great number of residents in the area, as they have lived their entire lives there – Hick’s family have been there since the 1870s.
Small and medium sized districts fall into a niche category where the total number of students ranging from enrollments of 120 to 230 students — especially in areas like Fort Davis with no mineral or natural resource wealth to rely on — continue to find themselves in the red financially.
Hicks shared his suggestions in an interview, and his analysis says the basic allotment — the per student base funding calculation used by the state — must go up from the current rate of $6,160 to $8,000 per child. In addition, that number must be separated from the minimum salary schedule for all teachers, counselors, nurses, and librarians.
And Hicks, like many lawmakers, believe that the state allotment must be based on enrollment, not average daily attendance, as it is currently. Supporters of enrollment-based funding also point out that the change would better clarify each district’s budgeting needs when they prepare for new expenses at the start of each school year.
He said his local state Rep. Eddie Morales, D-Eagle Pass is actively working to help the district, and added that if lawmakers can find a way to make those changes this session, he would be able to operate the district for another few years. However, the long term solutions require much more significant restructuring.
Other rural districts are in similar positions, so Democratic and Republican lawmakers have their work cut out for them to fix a broken funding system for public education in the state.