One district reaps the benefit of another’s belt-tightening; Pinch of state finance law getting worse, Richardson ISD says

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

QUINLAN – For a while, there were no Friday night lights at Boles High School. They couldn’t afford them.

Boles is part of the poorest school district in Texas. Years ago, someone figured out the school could save money on electricity if the field lights weren’t turned on until 8 on game nights.

That worked fine in August. But as the season went on and the sun set earlier, fans were left to sit in the dark while waiting for the dim lights strapped to roadside telephone poles to turn on.

When they did, parents saw their Hornets in run-down uniforms and ill-fitting helmets – hand-me-downs from a nearby school. Wide receivers dodged random humps and fire-ant mounds on the field.

“It was sad to watch,” said Pat Madden, a teacher at Boles since 1981. “The bleachers were all broken planks – you had to be careful where you sat. The kids deserved more than what they had.”

Fast forward to today: The much-maligned Texas school funding system has bought Boles new bleachers. And computers. And a new middle school. And lights that go on when they’re needed.

“We’re very proud just to have normal things now,” said Superintendent Graham Sweeney. “Things other districts have taken for granted, we’re just getting.”

That progress has largely been paid for by districts wealthier than Boles through the state’s school finance system. Districts such as Richardson, which has given up $151 million so far by sharing its property wealth.

Officials in Richardson ISD, which sent $3.4 million directly to Boles ISD through last year, say they’re happy for the gains in poorer districts. But they also feel cheated as programs they want to offer begin to erode.

“‘Robin Hood’ started out hurting a little,” said Charles Pickett, principal of Richardson North Junior High. “Now it’s killing us. The needs in places like Boles are real. But how far can you cut districts like us without hurting our children’s education?”

The first salvo in the modern battle over school finance came in 1984, when the Edgewood school district in San Antonio sued the state, saying Texas’ method of funding education was unfair, unequal and unconstitutional. Since then, primarily in reaction to court rulings, the Legislature has tried a variety of methods to equalize the funding between rich and poor.

The current system, called Robin Hood by its critics, arrived in 1993. The idea: The state would put a cap on how wealthy a school district could be. Districts that brought in too much revenue from local property taxes would have to send millions back to the state or directly to poorer districts.

Working toward balance

The system is supposed to bring funding levels for rich and poor districts closer together. That’s been bad news for the 118 “wealthy” Texas districts that must give up much of their local tax revenue – $1.5 billion total in the current two-year state budget cycle.

Richardson gave out only $4.5 million over the first three years. Since then, as property values have revved up, so have the payouts: $9.6 million in 1997-98, $28 million in 1999-2000, nearly $43 million last year.

Richardson expects to pay $55 million this year, more than 20 percent of the district’s operating budget.

“We’ve cut and cut,” said Patti Kieker, the district’s assistant superintendent for human resources. “All that’s left to cut is people.”

The rules of school finance have allowed Richardson to spend 42 percent more per student now than 10 years ago. But that hasn’t kept pace with the district’s needs, officials say.

“The cost to provide an education is substantially higher now than it was 10 years ago,” said Tony Harkleroad, Richardson’s finance director. “Teacher pay is up. Utilities are up. Construction costs are up for new schools.”

As those prices rise, the demographics of Richardson schools have also changed.

In 1993-94, 21.2 percent of RISD students were poor. Last year, 38.4 percent were poor.

The irony isn’t lost on Richardson officials: Students in their “wealthy” district are more likely to be poor than students in Boles. And though Boles is rated “recognized” by the state, Richardson is one step down at “acceptable.”

Initially, Richardson’s approach was to target central office expenses. More than 100 jobs were cut. Cellphone and travel expenses were cut; the district saved more than $1 million by making changes in its phone system. Maintenance schedules were scaled back.

But over time, such cuts weren’t enough. “This is really the first year we’ve had to touch classrooms more directly,” Mr. Harkleroad said.

The district reduced the amount of one-on-one time some elementary students get with reading instructors. Middle school art, music and P.E. teachers were asked to take on more classes and more kids.

There are fewer field trips, fewer speakers, fewer extra materials. Teacher free time was reduced, making it harder to arrange planning time for groups of teachers.

“We’re shortchanging the kids,” said Lori French, a P.E. teacher at Richardson North Junior High, whose classes of 35 kids now have 50 or more. “It’s very difficult on the teachers – it’s a stress load.”

Just try teaching volleyball to 50-plus kids in a gym with one net, she said.

“You get to the point where you say, ‘Beyond this number of students, we just physically can’t have a class,'” Mr. Pickett, the principal, said.

Unlike some other property-wealthy districts, Richardson has avoided charging fees for extracurricular activities or pushing elementary classes beyond the state class-size limits. And the district still provides a 15 percent homestead exemption to its residents.

Officials in Richardson don’t begrudge poor districts the benefits they’ve reaped from the school funding system. They do say, however, that Richardson should be able to spend more on its children if it chooses. With its tax rate already at the $1.50 state-mandated cap and its annual payout climbing, it now can’t.

“If our community wants the burden of providing a better education…they should be able to,” Mr. Harkleroad said.

The Boles Independent School District grew from an act of charity. William and Mary Boles were aging Hunt County farmers who, by the 1920s, had assembled 436 acres north of Quinlan, near Lake Tawakoni.

Both husband and wife had been orphans raised by relatives, and they had raised three orphan children. In their 60s, they determined they would give their land to a church willing to build an orphanage on the site. The Church of Christ agreed, and the Boles Orphan Home opened in 1924.

A small school was formed to educate the children who lived in the home. In the 1930s, the school was organized into a public school district, one of the state’s smallest.

Crunching the numbers

From the beginning, there was almost no money to support what was then called Boles Home ISD. The entire district is only nine square miles, with not a single business within its boundaries. It’s mostly farmland.

When Boles held a school board election in May, 32 people voted – the most in district history. (“We had to really beat the bushes to get that many,” Dr. Sweeney said.)

The state defines how wealthy a school district is by looking at how much property value it has for each student. Last year, Boles had $16,897 in property per student – less than one-tenth the state average. Richardson had $467,475 – more than double the state average.

That tiny tax base means that no matter how high Boles raises its taxes, it can’t generate the money it needs to run a school system.

Raising Richardson’s tax rate by 1 cent provides $1.6 million, about $45 per student. If Boles raises its tax rate by one penny, it generates $887, or about $1.82 per student.

Luckily for Boles, the state recognized its financial problems decades ago. As far back as the 1970s, the state was paying for 90 percent of the cost to educate Boles children.

But that wasn’t enough. During the 1980s, teachers would sometimes teach two or three grades in a single classroom while earning the lowest salaries allowable under state law. History teachers taught the Civil War without maps. The entire school had one TV. Students had state-issued textbooks, but additional instructional materials were too expensive.

“It was very primitive,” said Ed Voss, who one year in the early 1990s taught high school kids world geography, U.S. history, math, reading, speech and drama.

Dr. Sweeney, who arrived in 1986, used to help mow the school’s lawn, on a cheap riding mower. “I kept a box of nuts, bolts, screws and tools in my office so I could go fix things when they broke.” The secretary was also the school nurse, the business manager, the food service director and the transportation director.

“We had one bus you didn’t know if you’d get to Quinlan three miles away with,” said Marie Walton, who has taught at Boles since 1974. Teachers tell tales of hours spent on the side of a country road while someone walked miles to call for help.

The gym was a converted aircraft hangar from a nearby military installation, more rust than roof.

“We were basically living paycheck to paycheck as a district,” said Julie Spears, the assistant superintendent.

Those times are barely memories for the staff at Boles now. The impact of more state funding has been remarkable.

For the first time, the district could afford to own its schools. (It had spent decades in buildings owned by the orphan home.) With its first bond issue and state help, Boles even built a new middle school.

Now Boles can pay teachers more than the state minimum, even if it pays about $10,000 a year less than Richardson. The district has a full-time school counselor for the first time.

The high school has two high-tech distance learning classrooms, good for tapping into courses at Texas A&M University. There are awnings over the sidewalks to keep students dry. There’s a school band for the first time.

A draw for students

There has been academic success, too. Boles has been rated “recognized” – the state’s second-highest label – for two of the last three years. More than half of the school’s graduates go on to college.

Perhaps most important, Boles has become so much of a draw that kids in neighboring towns want to go there. The district, itching to get its enrollment numbers up, will take anyone it can, and there’s a waiting list. This year, Boles enrolled 520 students, about 300 of whom transferred from neighboring districts such as Greenville and Terrell.

While it’s no longer a one-room schoolhouse, Boles’ financial stability allows it to bring out the positive qualities of a compact, small-town education.

“You don’t have to worry about anything going wrong here,” said senior William Nichols. “The teachers really care about you here. I love it.”

“One kid who transferred into Boles didn’t show up for school one day, and we called to check on him,” Ms. Madden said. “He couldn’t understand. He said, ‘In my old district, I could miss school for a week and no one would notice.'”

Has the school finance system succeeded in offering children in Richardson and Boles a comparable education? By the numbers, yes.

Last year, Richardson spent $6,116 to educate each student. Boles spent $6,106.

The size of that gap has jumped around a bit each year since the finance system’s creation in 1993, growing larger in some years, smaller in others. But considering the yawning divide between the two economically, the gap isn’t nearly as large as it would be in some other states.

Closing the gap

Because Richardson pays its teachers so much more than Boles, Boles can spend more on supplies, instructional materials and school maintenance than Richardson.

“In terms of equity, Texas looks very favorable compared to other states,” said Mike Griffith, a policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan group that analyzes state education policies. “There are several different ways to measure how equitable a system is, but Texas does very well in all of them.

“The reason is that the entire system is designed to create equity,” he said. “In other states, equity is a focus of the funding system. But not many states have equity as the main goal.”

The two districts are so close in part because, last year, Richardson, in effect, “adopted” the children of Boles. Richardson, rather than send all of its payout to the state, sent more than $3.4 million of its payment directly to Boles, as state law allows.

That Richardson payment made up about 90 percent of Boles’ total budget.

Officials in both districts, despite their differing circumstances, agree on one thing: The system needs more state money, however it’s distributed. One byproduct of the system is that the state pays for a significantly smaller share of education now than even three years ago.

Texas ranks 34th of the 50 states in how much it spends per student. Mr. Griffith said many states are moving beyond issues of equity because equal funding doesn’t guarantee appropriate funding.

“What you end up with is a system where everybody is equitable, but nobody has enough money,” Mr. Griffith said.

But while the Legislature debates various remedies in the upcoming session, Dr. Sweeney is just pleased there’s still a superintendent’s job to be had at Boles.

“If Robin Hood hadn’t come along, it’s questionable if Boles would still be around,” he said. “But now we’ve got a nice little school district here, don’t we?”