Legislators urge consideration, study on South Texas ISD funding question

South Texas ISD school buses are seen in this undated photo. (Courtesy: South Texas ISD/Facebook)

Legislators from across the Rio Grande Valley weighed in on a legislative push launched by local school districts this week to eliminate South Texas ISD’s taxing authority, a move that could impact tens of thousands of dollars in funding the district receives annually.

So far, no new lawmakers from the Valley delegation have unequivocally said they’ll support legislation answering concerns over the district’s taxing status and funding structure, although they call it a priority and an issue worth discussing.

Early this week trustees in McAllen and Edinburg— expecting to be joined by other Valley districts — approved resolutions calling for the restructuring of STISD’s funding mechanisms.

The Brownsville school board will consider a similar step Tuesday.

Representative Sergio Munoz, Jr., D-Palmview, said he intends to introduce legislation answering that concern as soon as next week. Trustees in McAllen and Edinburg describe Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, as an ally of the effort, although officially he has only acknowledged the current situation as problematic and pledged to consider introducing legislation.

Currently, taxpayers in Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy counties pay the district taxes in addition to their local school district taxes.

Critics argue that South Texas ISD is benefiting unfairly from a system that originated when it was formed as a school for people with disabilities in the 1960.

Those critics argue that the district has an unfair financial edge over other districts that isn’t benefiting all taxpayers and all students; that STISD has strayed from the original mission that justified that taxing structure; that not all students in the area are guaranteed enrollment; and that the ample fund balance STISD has accumulated could lead to transparency issues.

South Texas ISD has responded by saying the district has never lacked enrollment positions for students wanting to attend and that it provides a valuable service to residents.

It said claims about transparency issues are bunk and — perhaps most significantly — that claims about equity are too.

“This argument being brought forth by the local school districts is not about equity. It is about harming the South Texas ISD community and its students and staff and eliminating the district as an option to RGV residents,” a statement from the district reads. “If it was truly about equity, the districts would be working with legislators to find a solution to bring all districts to a higher level of funding.”

Critics flatly disagree.

“It is all based on equity. All based on equity,” Board President Mike Farias said at the Edinburg school board meeting Tuesday. “It’s a cost-savings just in Edinburg alone of $4.2 million to the taxpayers. $4.2 million.”

That statement — and a suggestion for tax rebates — was met by applause.

Edinburg Superintendent Mario Salinas said he expects every school district in the region to support the legislative push.

STISD isn’t indicating it’ll give any ground and likely has the political heft to put up a fight.

It operates with a 24-member board — over triple the size of a normal school district — that includes members from across the three-county region it serves, many of them well connected politically.

With battle lines quickly being drawn, a complicated issue at hand and high stakes, it’s perhaps no surprise that a fair number of Valley legislators aren’t yet taking a side on the issue.

Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, put himself in that camp. He said addressing concerns over the funding issue would likely take a good deal of fact-finding: ”digging through the weeds,” as he put it.

Hinojosa did bluntly say that he was unswayed by STISD’s charge to districts to find equity by funding all school systems better.

“That answer doesn’t solve anything,” he said.

Hinojosa is the Valley’s most senior legislator and frequently weighs in on educational issues in his district. His support in either camp would almost certainly be enviable.

When the Legislature expanded STISD’s mandate to include the operation of magnet schools in the 1980s, in fact, Hinojosa was already a representative. He said he can’t recall the details of that decision — it’s been 40 years, after all — but that it may be time to step back and evaluate what South Texas ISD is and what it’s supposed to do.

Hinojosa said he was concerned about “mission-creep.”

“Are they now going to be a regular high school and compete with the regular high schools? When they have — allegedly — an advantage in funding?” he said. “Those are issues we do need to explore and get facts.”

Getting facts on the issue was a priority for all legislators who spoke to The Monitor this week.

It is, Hinojosa said, a serious matter.

“We don’t want to hurt the students or the teachers, so this is a sensitive issue,” he said. “We can’t make decisions without thoroughly understanding what the issues are and what impact any changes we make would have, as to the students and the teachers.”

Rep. Bobby Guerra, D-Mission, echoed that sentiment Thursday, urging caution and consideration.

“From what I gather, this is an issue that needs to be studied very closely,” he said. “I’ve spoken with some members of the Valley delegation, and we all realize the significance and the concerns about this. After all, we are talking about taxpayer funding, that’s where the funding comes from — we just need to make sure that we do what is equitable for the students, especially, and of course the school districts.”

Guerra said he’s met with representatives from South Texas ISD and traditional school systems in his district, and said the issue stands a good chance of being one of the more important ones of the session for Valley legislators.

Rep. Oscar Longoria, D-Penitas, agreed with the fact-finding push and recommended a historical analysis. He said he’s heard concerns about the district’s taxes, and that the matter warrants more information.

“I’m going to go ahead and make a decision based on what my constituents want and what makes the most sense for South Texas going forward,” Longoria said Wednesday.

The lower Valley will see its largest school district considering joining the legislative push Tuesday, and attention will likely shift down river.

Much of South Texas ISD falls within the district of freshman Sen. Morgan LaMantia, D-South Padre Island.

A statement from her office Friday noted she hadn’t yet spoken to any South Texas ISD representatives and acknowledged a “strong push” to eliminate the district’s taxing authority.

LaMantia too urged caution.

“While the Senator certainly agrees that it’s not equitable for her constituents to be double taxed by school taxes, she is concerned with what might happen if South Texas ISD’s taxing authority is eliminated all together all at once,” it read. “The most important aspect we can focus on is finding the right way for everyone to move forward to resolve this situation.”

If school districts are looking for a legislator who understands their situation, there’s likely no better candidate than Janie Lopez, R-San Benito, who was, until her election this fall, a serving board trustee of a traditional district.

Lopez also refrained from taking a side Friday.

“All my constituents’ issues are important and there are many needs in my community,” she wrote in a statement. “We are doing research into this subject and will get back to you with more information. In the meantime we will continue to meet with constituents on any and all issues that are important to them.”

To find a comprehensive list of bills filed — and the status of those bills — visit MyRGV.com and click the 88th Texas Legislative Session tab, which has an interactive spreadsheet and a comprehensive list of AIM Media Texas’ legislative coverage.