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Schools making legislative wish lists

American-Statesman (12/19/2002)

By Erik Rodriguez and Michelle M. Martinez

TEXAS —Austin school district, SWT and ACC want ability to take action.Hoping to get what they want out of a tight state budget, the Austin school district, Austin Community College and Southwest Texas State University plan to make indirect appeals for money to legislators.

ACC wants greater power for annexations, which would bring in new taxpayers. The Austin school district wants permission to raise its tax rate. And SWT wants to use bonds to build a $26 million higher education center in Round Rock.

Lawmakers are facing a $5 billion to $12 billion shortfall in the state’s $114 billion budget when the Legislature reconvenes in January. State Sen. Teel Bivins, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said legislators won’t be fooled by veiled requests. “Regardless of how they clothe their requests, they’re still requests for cash,” Bivins, R-Amarillo, said. “The common thread of all three is they want more money.” Bivins said legislators are committed to funding education but won’t know how Central Texas institutions will fare until the comptroller’s office issues its revenue estimate.

Educators, meanwhile, want to ensure they won’t be left out. “It’s a difficult financial year for the state,” said ACC President Richard Fonté. “This will be a true test of whether (legislators) value higher education and participation in higher education.”

ACC has five items on its legislative agenda. Top among them is a proposal to allow residents of a community college’s entire tax district to vote on whether to annex a new school district. ACC’s taxing district includes the Austin, Leander and Manor school districts. Residents in those public school districts were the only ones eligible to vote on whether to be included in the ACC taxing district. Under the proposed law, voters in all the taxpaying school districts, not the individual school districts alone, would determine ACC’s tax base. That change could generate millions for the college, Fonté and other ACC officials have said, because ACC would stand a better chance of annexing districts. Other legislative priorities include providing health benefits to part-time faculty and making it easier for some students to become eligible for the TEXAS Grant Program, which helps high-achieving students with tuition costs.

The Austin school district also wants legislators’ help in solving its money woes. Officials want lawmakers to either pump more money into K-12 education or raise a cap that prohibits school districts from increasing the tax rate for day-to-day operations to more than $1.50 per $100 of an assessed home’s value. The Austin district reached that limit this year. About 400 of the 1,040 school districts in Texas are at the cap, and about 100 have rates within 3 cents of it, according to the state comptroller’s office. The tax cap restriction is especially troubling to the Austin school district and other taxing entities because they face a projected decline in property values. A decline would mean about $24 million lessrevenue to the district, which in 2003-04 must pay an estimated $169 million to property-poor school districts.

“Most districts are starting to live on a fixed income,” said Dave Duty, an Austin school district official who oversees the district’s legislative agenda. Bivins said that even though the ACC and Austin school district requests wouldn’t directly impact the state budget, legislators will consider the burden on property taxpayers. “The reality of every legislative session is, state revenues increase arithmetically while demands increase at an exponential rate,” he said. Southwest Texas State University is seeking $26 million to build a permanent home for its Round Rock Higher Education Center. The center, a cooperative venture of SWT, ACC and Temple College at Taylor, is housed in portable buildings at two Round Rock high schools. Because the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board considers them short on space, officials are optimistic the Legislature will allow the San Marcos university to use tuition revenue bonds to pay for the project. State revenue would be used to finance the debt. The school is also hoping to find $875,000 for work at the Texas Rivers Center at Aquarena Springs and is seeking funding for a series of math camps for junior high and high school students.