HARLINGEN — The school district is joining 20 Cameron, Hidalgo and Willacy County districts in a growing campaign pushing legislators to quash the South Texas school district’s taxing authority.
The school board has passed a resolution “seeking legislative change to the funding of South Texas ISD and elimination of the duplication of taxes for Harlingen CISD taxpayers,” aiming to push lawmakers into introducing legislation to address concerns.
“This is not at all about doing away with South Texas ISD or asking for those additional taxing funds,” Superintendent Alicia Noyola stated Thursday. “It is simply about doing what is right for our students and for our taxpayers. As we studied the programming and particularly the funding at South Texas ISD, it raised a number of concerns. We saw a duplication of taxes and a lack of equity in funding between South Texas ISD and public school districts within Cameron, Willacy and Hidalgo.”
Across the state, the South Texas school district’s taxation has created Texas’ only case of “duplication of taxes,” Brianna Vela Garcia, the Harlingen school district’s spokeswoman, said.
Meanwhile, Noyola pointed to the South Texas school district’s “inequitable” funding.
“Beyond the simple duplication of taxes, more importantly is the lack of equity in funding that exists between what South Texas ISD receives through that taxation and what Harlingen CISD and every other district in Willacy, Cameron and Hidalgo County receive,” she stated. “In order for our students to receive the same amount of taxing monies that South Texas ISD students are, we would have to triple our taxes just to provide an equal amount.”
With an enrollment of about 4,200 students, the South Texas school district’s tax rate of 0.0492 cents per $100 valuation raised $32 million in fiscal 2020-2021, providing $7,634 for every student, records show.
In Harlingen, with an enrollment of about 17,800 students, the district’s tax rate stands at $1.15 per $100 valuation, raising about $42 million while providing $2,373 for each student.
While the South Texas school district’s fund balance stood at $87.8 million during the 2020-2021 school year, Harlingen’s was set at $44.6 million.
Duplication of taxes
Last week, the school board passed the resolution following Noyola’s presentation.
In the 1960s, the state founded the South Texas school district based in Mercedes to serve the area’s special education students, authorizing the district to raise property taxes as high as 5 cents per $100 valuation, she told board members during the Dec. 17 meeting.
As other school districts began serving more special education students, the South Texas school district developed its career and technical education programs while continuing to tax its neighboring communities, she said.
Now, the state requires all school districts offer such career and technical education programs, she said.
Today, the South Texas school district offers programs similar to those of other area school districts while continuing to tax their communities, Noyola told board members.
“When you compare school districts, we have equivalent school districts,” she said. “There is no longer something special that is being provided at South Texas ISD that school districts like Harlingen do not provide, so you know they’re providing similar programming and yet our communities in Willacy, Cameron and Hidalgo counties continue to be taxed. In essence, there’s a duplication of taxes.”
During her presentation, Noyola outlined factors behind what she described as the South Texas school district’s inequitable funding.
In Harlingen, as appraised property values go up, the school district lowers its tax rate, she said, noting the school board cut the district’s rate by 16 cents during the last three years.
“However, South Texas ISD is not subject to any taxation so as the property values continue to go up, we are compressing but they are not subject to any type of compression and so as these property values go up, their tax collections continue to increase,” Noyola told board members.
Meanwhile, the state does not subject the South Texas school district to return excess tax revenue as it does districts such as Point Isabel, Noyola said
“South Texas ISD is not subject to recapture so their tax collections continue to increase year to year,” she said.
In closing her presentation, Noyola suggested lawmakers consider funding the South Texas school district as they fund charter schools such as IDEA Public Schools, for which the state does not grant taxing authority.
“This is not about the elimination or doing away with South Texas ISD,” she said. “This district is a district of choice. We believe in providing choice to students and so if parents, students choose to attend South Texas ISD, that is their perrogative. However, what we are looking for is equity in funding so that our students also have the opportunities that the students that attend South Texas ISD right now are able to experience.”
Now, the Harlingen school district joins 20 other districts in passing resolutions calling for changes in the South Texas school district’s funding along with the “elimination of the duplication of taxes,” including Brownsville, Donna, Edinburg, La Feria, La Villa, Lasara, Lyford, Los Fresnos, McAllen, Mission, Monte Alto, Point Isabel, Rio Hondo, San Benito, San Perlita, Santa Rosa, Sharyland, Valley View, Weslaco and Zapata.
South Texas ISD response
On Thursday, the South Texas school district did not respond to a request for comment before 5 p.m.
However, the district released a statement to the Monitor in McAllen earlier this month.
“Although STISD has taxing authority, the taxation for RGV residents within the three counties served is not double, as the rates collected by STISD and other local school districts differ considerably,” officials stated.
“Although we have taxing authority over a large geographical area, as a district so spread out, there are also unique challenges that come with the set-up that other districts do not face, like providing transportation across three counties,” officials stated. “STISD wants all families from the communities served to have the opportunity to participate in our district and programs, if they so choose, and we continue to offer free bus transportation to students throughout the three counties.”
Despite its development of career and technical education programs, the district continues to serve special education students, officials stated.
“We have also maintained our emphasis on students with special needs through our Career and Technical Education Half-Day program, a collaborative effort we have in place with sister school districts throughout the RGV, whereby students take the majority of their academic courses at their home district and take CTE courses through STISD,” officials stated.
Meanwhile, the district’s commitment to quality education has led graduates to higher education along with successful careers.
“The group that established STISD anticipated the positive changes vocational magnet schools could bring to our region and worked hard to put this district in place to do just that,” officials stated. “With multiple generations of successful alumni across the region, the state, the nation and the world, we take pride in what we have built over the last half-century for the RGV.”