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Voters will face a test on Election Day, and whether they answer correctly will determine the future of the Houston Independent School District. It should be a simple question, but it's written in the obtuse vernacular of lawmakers who really don't want voters to understand it.
The ballot provision will ask voters to authorize the board of trustees of HISD to purchase attendance credits from the state with local tax revenue. That sounds like a good, progressive measure, but be warned - it is a trick question.
The ballot is really asking whether HISD should submit itself to state recapture and send $162 million in local property tax dollars to Austin. The correct answer is "NO."
If this misleading ballot provision passes, HISD will not only be required to send $162 million in local property tax dollars to the state next year. The district will also likely face higher annual payments for the foreseeable future under the state's broken school finance system.
The mandate comes about because rising property values have made HISD subject to "Robin Hood" provisions under the Texas Education Code. All those skyscrapers and rapidly appreciating homes have apparently pushed HISD over the top.
As Texas schools are financed through property taxes, the recapture provisions (what we know as Robin Hood) were supposed to provide a way to equalize school funding across the state - for poor and wealthy schools alike.
In May, the Texas Supreme Court held that this system of school finance is marginally constitutional. Consider that assessment a D-minus grade. The fact of the matter is that the state's school funding formula fails to accomplish its intended goals of helping poor school districts.
Technically these recaptured funds are supposed to help schools that need the resources. If the provision worked like a true Robin Hood, it would "rob" from the rich and "give" to the poor. But in reality, the system robs from the poor and gives to legislators so that they don't have to raise state taxes. There's no guarantee that poor schools will receive a single extra dime if HISD pays up.
How does this work? Simply put, the state keeps two bank accounts: one for general revenue and one for the recaptured Robin Hood sums. Every dollar that the state pays from Robin Hood frees up general revenue money that the state otherwise would have to spend to help poor schools. So instead of giving extra money to needy districts, any HISD money will essentially be spent on highways, border security or some other appropriation besides education.
If this passes, then HISD is projected to send more than $1 billion of our local property taxes to the state over the next four years. Not only does that hurt HISD, but it looks an awful lot like a state property tax - which is prohibited in the Texas Constitution.
Houston's economy is strong and diverse, but to maintain that edge Houston needs well-educated students. If HISD has to pay recapture, it will face a $95 million budget deficit in the next budget cycle.
In an ironic twist, that budget deficit will end up hurting the very students that Robin Hood is supposed to help. More than 75 percent of HISD students are disadvantaged. It is a sign of our bizarre and busted school finance system that the district with the largest number of poor families will have to give away critically needed resources.
Voters can block this preposterous outcome. By voting no, Houstonians will keep their money and instead authorize the commissioner of education to detach $18 billion worth of commercial property from HISD and assign it to other school districts. This has never happened before, and such a radical move would give the Legislature an opportunity to rectify the situation.
A "no" vote won't end the problem. However, it will give the Legislature the entire 2017 session to fix school finance in Texas and keep local taxpayer dollars in our HISD schools.
It is a tricky question, but the answer is simple. Vote "No" on attendance credits.