The common misconception that the city plays an active role in public education may stem from the fact that both are essentially financed through property tax.
San Antonio residents have watched their property taxes increase significantly since 2014, as average property value assessments climbed by seven percent in 2014, 11 percent in 2015, seven percent in 2016, and another almost nine percent in 2017.
As they climbed, many property owners consoled themselves with the thought of more revenues flowing into their neighborhood school. Imagine their disillusionment to find that not a single additional dollar went to their local school district.
Meanwhile, their neighbors are calling city council to ask what the city can do to lower taxes.
Such is the general squeeze that Tuesday brought Bexar County superintendents, including charter representatives, to the literal table with the City of San Antonio’s Inter-governmental Relations Committee.
“The city needed to get it’s skin in the game to support our schools,” Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) said, kicking off the meeting, “We have not, in a way that has been constructive, been brought into the conversation.”
The City, through its Inter-governmental Relations Committee chaired by Saldaña and comprised of Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3), Councilman Manny Peláez (D8), and Councilman Clayton Perry (D10), has committed to doing its homework to understand school finance so that it can effectively advocate for school funding in Austin, especially during the 2019 Legislative Session.
The room was full of community stakeholders as well, philanthropists and advocates who will undoubtedly play a role in the effort.
While she did not have an official seat among the committee and superintendents, the mayor’s chief of policy, Marisa Bono, was also in attendance. Formerly with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), Bono has argued before the Texas Supreme Court on behalf of local districts suing the state over its school finance system. In her the City has a powerful in-house resource, State Rep. Diego Bernal said, and thus, “there is no city better positioned to take this on than San Antonio.”
Bernal, vice chair of the House Public Education committee and a member of the Texas Commission on School Finance joined the summit as well. Bernal has often pointed out that the most effective way to lower local property taxes is to increase the State’s share of education funding.
Every district gets a set amount of money, determined by several formulas, explained David Thompson, a school finance expert brought in to educate the committee. At the end of the day, Thompson explained, there’s a set amount each district can receive. He compared this dollar value to a bottle. The property taxes go in first, and the State kicks in to fill whatever volume of the bottle is left to fill. If the bottle runs over after property taxes, such as in Alamo Heights ISD, the State keeps the excess and contributes nothing.
Those dollars do not necessarily go to other school district as the policy known as “Robin Hood” would imply, Brown pointed out. Excess property taxes from property wealthy districts go to the State’s general revenue fund. Some are designated for State aid to property poor districts.
By the current calculations of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, the state pays for 38 percent percent of all public school funding. The majority, 62 percent, comes from local sources, not including the Robin Hood dollars.
So, to Bernal’s argument, if the state committed to, say, 50% of every “bottle” the average property tax burden would decrease.
School finance reform will face an additional hurdle in the 2019 Legislative session: Gov. Greg Abbott has proposed what is effectively a cap on cities’ and counties’ ability to tax property owners. The same idea was floated during the 2017 Legislative Session. Mayors, county judges of both parties, and superintendents spoke out against what was then Senate Bill 2, the Property Tax Reform and Relief Act. Any property tax cap would do one of two things to education funding, Thompson explained: Either the State would have to chip in more, or education spending would decrease.
Even then, while there can be a cap on the base tax rate, Northside ISD Superintendent Brian Woods said, districts are still responsible to pay for their bond initiatives, even if they have less money on hand. This would cause their “interest and sinking” rate, (which is essentially payment on bonds) to skyrocket, furthering the “conspiracy” to place the blame for property taxes at the feet of local entities, Woods said. Northside ISD will place a $848.91 million bond initiative on the May 5 ballot.
By convening the superintendents, the City hopes to join forces, in a manner of speaking. The prevailing strategy in the Legislature is to place blame on local governments—city, county, and school districts—for the burdensome property taxes. Their approach, Saldaña said, will likely be to divide and conquer, pitting each local government against the other for political survival.
“If this is a hill we want to climb, we go together,” Saldaña said.