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Voters in Texas’ biggest school district in Texas might do what the nine Republicans on the state’s Supreme Court wouldn’t do: Force the Legislature to overhaul the way it pays for public education.
Such a move would require some daring. Voters in the Houston Independent School District will have a choice in November to approve spending $165 million raised locally from school property taxes on other, poorer school districts in the state.
The ballot language is opaque, and a pretty good argument for improving the writing skills of the people in charge of state and local governments: “Authorizing the board of trustees of Houston Independent School District to purchase attendance credits from the state with local tax revenues.”
The actual choice presented by that ballot measure? Vote “for” spending $165 million of the district’s money in other districts, or vote “against” spending that money and risk taking $18 billion of the district’s commercial properties from the tax rolls and assigning them to the tax rolls of another district.
A “No” vote in November — urged by many of the HISD’s trustees, the city’s mayor, and others — would spark some political drama.
About one Texas school district in four spends some of its locally raised money to help educate students in districts that can’t raise enough money from their own tax bases. It’s called recapture by the policy wonks, but because it takes from “property rich” districts and gives to “property poor” districts, it’s more commonly called the Robin Hood system.
When a district’s voters refuse to go along — something that hasn’t happened — the Texas Education Agency is required to move part of that district’s property tax base to another, poorer district.
The agency obviously doesn’t move the real estate, but it would assign some of one district’s biggest commercial property taxpayers to pay taxes in another district. The law gives a preference to closer districts.
In HISD’s case, a “no” vote would mean taking an estimated $18 billion in property from that district’s rolls. The TEA would start with the most valuable properties and work its way down until it has taken away enough property to cover the $165 million or so that HISD owes under the Robin Hood system.