McALLEN, RGV – Don’t blame McAllen ISD board members for a possible hefty bond issue to pay for new facilities, blame the state Legislature for abdicating its responsibility to public education.
This is the view of McAllen attorney Gina Karam Millin, a former teacher and life-long resident of McAllen who studied school finance while serving as co-chair on McAllen ISD’s facilities forecast advisory committee. The committee recommended a $440 million bond package to pay for new campuses and state of the art science labs.
“Texas is the second richest state in the union but we are 46th out of 50 in terms of how much money we spend per pupil on public education,” Karam Millin told the Rio Grande Guardian, in an exclusive interview. She noted that, according to the Texas Constitution, it is the state’s responsibility to provide a quality public education.
“What that translates into is a maintenance and operations budget that each school district has to adhere to. With that budget the school districts are required to pay the payroll, buy all of the supplies; pay for vehicles and gasoline. There is no money left with our budget to make capital improvements,” Karam Millin said.
“So, by putting this cap on what we can charge in property taxes we are strapped. The only way to make capital improvements is to pass a bond.”
Karam Millin pointed out that last November, 49 school districts across Texas asked voters to approve bond packages to pay for capital improvements and in 42 of them voters said yes. “From this number, you can see the legislature has given us no choice but to call for a bond election in order to maintain our buildings,” she said.
Karam Millin then spoke about the “crazy formulas” used to make the school finance system work.
“The finance system has been held to be unconstitutional by a Travis County District Court Judge. And in his order the judge said that low-wealth districts, and McAllen ISD is one of them, is forced to tax at a higher rate but get less per child. The court found that the difference was as much as a ten cents higher tax rate to get $1,000 less per child. If you think about how much that is when you have a class of 24 kids. That is 24,000 less that the low-wealth districts are getting.”
Karam Millin said the judge, John Dietz, ordered that the Legislature fix the problem in the current legislative session. “We started to have some hope that they were going to address it. But no, the state is going to continue to fight the fight, continue to argue that the system is not unconstitutional even though we are being punished by higher taxes and lower distribution per student. Now, the Supreme Court is going to hear the case and they have set a timetable that ensures that this legislature will not have to deal with the problem.”
Even if the Legislature did deal with school, Karam Millin said, and they equalized funding for all students across the state “it is never going to amount to what we (McAllen) need to maintain our facilities. We will never be able to make up the $440 million deficit we find ourselves in right now.”
Karam Millin noted that the Legislature made school districts “compress” its property tax collections back in 2006. A business tax was supposed to pick up the slack but this not generated the funding expected. “We went from a tax rate of $1.61 down to $1.17. That was ten years ago. In ten years our facilities have become more and more dilapidated because we are operating on a smaller budget while our buildings are getting older and older. As residents it has been great that we have had low taxes but we really need to look at it as a break for a few years and now it is time to increase them. We are still going to be 14 cents less than we were in 2005, if the bond passes. And we are going to get state of the art schools. So, it is a no-brainer for me.
Karam Millin said she did not want to make school finance inequality a party political issue. However, she noted that the same party (Republican) has held sway in Texas for 20 years. “I do not mean to get political but it is a matter of fact that they do not put a priority on education.” She then noted that Gov. Greg Abbott has made a big deal about giving more resources to charter schools so that parents can take their children out of underperforming public schools. “Public schools are underperforming because they are not adequately funded,” she said.
Karam Millin said she would never have understood the intricacies of school finance had she not served on McAllen’s facilities forecast advisory committee. “We (the committee) had to ask ourselves, how did we end up in this situation that we have these (facilities) needs that are so great? People are going to be mad and they are going to be pointing fingers at the school board. But, the school board has a Triple ‘A’ rating, it is fiscally responsible, it has a rainy day fund set up. The school board is doing everything right but still they cannot manage the capital improvements that are needed.”
Karam Millin acknowledged that when property owners in McAllen hear figures like $440 million being bandied about for a school district bond issue their instinctive reaction is to say no. “They think of the tax implication and it is an astonishing number. There is some sticker shock there. But if I can have five minutes with that person and I can tell them why we got here and why there are no other options I find that they turn around and that they change their way of thinking. They realize that the Legislature has put us in this position. We have to take our kids futures into our own hands because there is no one in Austin who is watching out for us down here in the Rio Grande Valley.”
Asked if she believed McAllen ISD board members should bite the bullet and go for a bond issue, Karam Millin said: “There is no reason to wait. We have done all of the research. The interest rates are at all-time lows. The district is financially sound. There is just no sense in waiting.”