Wealthy but still in need?; Affluent Eanes ISD says state law puts schools in financial crisis

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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WEST LAKE HILLS, Texas – Begging doesn’t come easy to the men and women of the Eanes Independent School District.

The people of Eanes are doctors, lawyers, business people. Within the district’s boundaries reside many of the Austin area’s power elite. It’s one of Texas’ wealthiest school districts.

But now they’re passing the hat, asking for charity – because they say their schools are in a financial crisis.

“We’ll be sending out letters to the community in a few weeks, asking for donations,” said Jess Butler, Eanes’ superintendent. “It’s the most traditional fund-raiser of all – saying ‘Help!'”

Eanes officials, like those in an increasing number of suburban districts around the state, blame the Texas school-finance system for their difficulties. And they’re not optimistic that the current legislative session will bring much relief.

“We’re doing more than our fair share, and it’s time for the state to step up,” said trustee Ellen Balthazar.

But parents in other school districts might not see Eanes’ financial situation as a crisis. Even after sending away its revenue-sharing payment each year, Eanes still manages to spend more money on its students – more than $9,100 per pupil last year – than any other school district its size in Texas. The state average in 2001-02 was $6,913.

“I wish every school district could spend as much as we do now,” Dr. Butler said. “But that doesn’t mean Eanes should be forced to spend less. It’s criminal what the state is doing.”

Eanes is to Austin what Highland Park is to Dallas – the wealthy enclave whose mention is most likely to push other school districts into fits of envy. Unlike Highland Park, there is no city of Eanes. The district covers the small suburbs of West Lake Hills and Rollingwood, along with some parts of Austin proper.

The district takes pride in its students’ accomplishments, of which there are many. Its high school football team, Austin Westlake, is one of the state’s eternal powers, having won 12 straight district titles. Its band marched in this year’s Rose Bowl Parade. Each of its schools is rated exemplary by the state’s rating system.

“It’s the central bonding agent for our entire community,” said Rollingwood Mayor Thom Farrell, whose three children have all attended Eanes schools.

But officials say the school finance system could change all that. The system, instituted in 1993, requires the state’s wealthiest school districts to redistribute a portion of their tax revenues to poorer districts. As a district’s property values go up, so does the amount of money it has to give up, which is known as its recapture payment.

Over the last eight years, Eanes’ property-tax revenues have nearly tripled – from $31.8 million in 1994-95 to an estimated $90.8 million this year. But the district’s recapture payments have increased in that time from $2.6 million to $51 million. This year, for the first time, Eanes will have to send away more money than it will get to keep.

“I’ve been in other schools that have nicer things than we do, but we give all that money away,” said Kate Cippele, a junior at Westlake High. “I don’t think that’s really fair.”

For five straight years, Eanes dealt with the increased recapture by raising taxes. But last year, its main property-tax rate hit $1.50 per $100 of assessed value – the highest that state law allows it to go. The cuts began.

At first, they were small – less money for teacher supplies, reductions in central office staff, no more Spanish for elementary students.

‘People are worried’

But next year, if spending levels stay at their current levels, Eanes will face a deficit of about $8 million.

That’s the equivalent of 144 jobs within the district, or about 15 percent of the total workforce.

“People are worried about whether they’ll have jobs or not,” said Karen Linder, a kindergarten teacher at Forest Trail Elementary. “It’s depressing to come to work.”

“It’s not going to be any fun to be a school board member this year,” said trustee Robert Durkee.

To keep the cuts from being too deep, the district is thinking up ways to generate more money: starting a for-profit day-care service, selling advertising space on school buses or the aforementioned requests for donations.

“I don’t know if people will give, but if the schools mean enough to them, I hope they will,” Mr. Farrell said.

The goal of the school finance system, dubbed “Robin Hood” by critics, is to equalize spending between the state’s school districts. But even with the large sums it sends away to poorer schools, Eanes still manages to outspend all of its peers.

Part of that is caused by a recent bond package voters approved to renovate several schools. But even after removing the bond package and just looking at classroom spending, Eanes still spends about 17 percent more per pupil than average – and more than any of the state’s other 100 largest school districts.

And, remarkably, that gap has grown over the last decade. In 1993, the first year of the revenue-sharing system, Eanes spent only 14 percent more than the average Texas school district.

To put it another way: If every school district in Texas spent as much on its students as Eanes does, it would cost taxpayers an additional $9.3 billion a year.

“It’s difficult for us to complain about not offering French or German when schools in the Valley worry about turning on the air conditioning when it’s 100 degrees outside,” Mr. Durkee said.

District officials acknowledge that they spend more than other districts, but they make no apologies. They say the extras are essential: more school nurses, more counselors, clerical aides for teachers and smaller class sizes.

They also point to their outstanding test scores and say the spending has gotten results.

“I don’t view those sorts of things as optional or just enrichment,” Dr. Butler said. “Those things are essential, but we’re looking at cutting them.”

Desire to be the best

Eanes is running into one of the most difficult problems of the current school-funding system. It is designed to increase equity between the rich and poor and, to a large degree, it’s succeeded. But equity isn’t always the top goal of suburban parents.

“We have an attitude here of having the best, being the best,” Dr. Butler said. “Our parents won’t stand for just an adequate education.”

“I think our children are getting a good education now,” said Nancy Morgan, mother of three Eanes students. “But it shouldn’t be all on our backs. The state needs to do more.”

Dr. Butler, a former consultant to both rich and poor districts, has been studying the Texas school-finance system for decades. He’s even written a short book on the subject: Schools Circling the Drain, an odd allegory featuring characters named Dan Druff (a school board member), Kay Oss (the business manager) and Gill O. Teen (the school auditor).

He said that when he talks to superintendents in other districts, they tell him, “Jess, you’re cutting programs we never had.” To which he replies, “They should be able to have all those programs if they want to, even in poor districts. If they want an orchestra program, they should be able to have one. Every child in Texas ought to be able to have the sort of education a child in Eanes receives.”

That can’t be done, he said, without a major infusion of new money. That’s why, he said, he supports a state income tax and higher state spending on education.

But it seems Dr. Butler is unlikely to get his wish, at least in the short term. Legislators, many elected on a “no new taxes” pledge, are facing a $9.9 billion deficit in the current session. Most observers doubt there’ll be much if any new money available for education in the next state budget.

So Eanes will keep searching its budget for fat, or at least whatever muscle it feels it can spare, preparing for life a little closer to average.

“It’s just tragic,” said Ms. Balthazar, the school trustee, “that the state is tearing apart its best schools.”