Disappointed but not surprised; Educators say many issues, little consensus doomed finance plan

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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If you’ve ever wondered how long it takes for hope to turn to disappointment, the answer appears to be 24 days.

The quiet demise of the Legislature’s special session on school finance – once a source of optimism for educators – took just that long.

When Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said Friday what others had been murmuring for days – that no bill would reach the governor’s desk before the 30-day session is shuttered – educators reacted with a mix of sadness and anger.

“It is not an option to go home and not do the job,” said Irving ISD Superintendent Jack Singley. “I don’t want my legislator to come home. I want them to stay there until they solve the problem.”

One common complaint: What began as a session on school finance seemed to focus on everything but school finance – video gambling, tax caps, payroll taxes, cigarette taxes.

“There were so many issues that legislators tried to address that it became hard for them to tackle them all,” said Plano Superintendent Doug Otto. “They had so many balls in the air that I think they fell down from the weight of it all.”

Arlington Superintendent Mac Bernd said the inaction was caused by the session’s emphasis on tax relief rather than boosting school funding.

“When you broach the subject of tax relief, you’ve got so many competing interests with extremely strong points of view at work,” he said. “Every interest immediately begins to calculate their losses and gains with each idea. You set up a condition where nothing can get done.”

The turning point, several said, came when the House could not pass a school finance bill without gutting the most controversial revenue elements, including a constitutional amendment allowing video slot machines. Instead, the House sent the Senate a largely empty measure.

“That was the beginning of the end,” said Michael Downes, superintendent of Big Spring schools. “I still had a slim amount of hope in the Senate. But I’m not exceptionally surprised.”

Cathy Bryce, superintendent of the Highland Park schools, said the session was productive even if it won’t produce legislation. “Everybody’s laid out their differences,” she said. “We know where there’s not consensus. That allows you to build a plan.”

But Dr. Otto said he had hoped the state had reached that point before the session began on April 20. “We’ve had almost three years of special interim committees and studies and all kinds of pronouncements that something was going to be done,” he said. “I had high hopes. But I think in the final analysis they had too many issues stacked on their plate.”

Superintendents differed on whether it would be a good idea for the governor to call another special session immediately.

“I think everybody involved needs a breather,” Dr. Bernd said. “I know a lot of times when I’m faced with a problem, I come up with a better idea if I step away from it and sleep on it. That may be what we need here.”

Mr. Downes said that waiting until January’s regular session may not be an option. In August, the Travis County District Court is expected to hear the West Orange Cove case, in which a coalition of school districts accuses the state of underfunding public schools and imposing an unconstitutional statewide property tax.