South Texas ISD restructure push loses steam in regular session

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Although proponents of a push to reform South Texas ISD’s funding structure say they intend to keep up the effort, the issue failed to gain traction in the 88th Texas Legislature and odds seem long for some kind of bill moving through a special session this summer.

Several local school boards banded together early this year to call for restructuring STISD’s funding mechanisms, which they argued give the district an unfair advantage by allowing it to tax residents of Cameron, Hidalgo and Willacy counties despite straying from the mission that originally justified that taxing ability.

South Texas ISD, meanwhile, argued that its financial situation was being misconstrued and that it provides a valuable service to the community that would be in jeopardy if its taxing authority was eliminated.

Two bills filed in March by state Rep. Sergio Muñoz, D-Palmview, could have removed the district’s taxing authority, though those bills failed to move forward successfully in the regular session.

One did get a hearing.

In a statement, South Texas ISD described the bills flagging as an endorsement of the district’s performance.

“South Texas ISD wants to thank our legislators, students, parents, alumni, and supporters, for all their efforts during the 88th Legislative Session,” it read. “We appreciate that the Texas Legislature recognized the value the district brings to our region, and we are grateful that we will continue operating as we have been for nearly 60 years.”

STISD made an effort this year to get that message across to the community and the Rio Grande Valley’s legislative delegation.

The district hired a communications firm with that goal in mind. Members of its board — the largest in the nation — visited with legislators, and the district offered faculty and staff talking points favoring the district that they could send to elected officials.

Those efforts appear to have paid off. Despite several Valley legislators saying the matter merited discussion and state Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, flirting with filing a bill of his own relating to the issue, no other legislators from the Valley took a public stance in favor of restructuring the district’s funding and Muñoz stood alone.

South Texas Association of Schools Executive Director Jesus Chavez, who often served as a spokesperson for critical districts, said he suspects the reformers were simply outgunned politically.

“I can guess that they (legislators) also received pressure from the other side. I don’t know what kind of ties legislators have to some of the parents, some of the board members. Keep in mind that some of the board members are appointed by county judges, so there’s that political tie,” he said.

Chavez said he imagines the issue will stay a priority for his group. He doesn’t think it’ll surface in a special session this summer, but says it’s liable to come back at the next regular session.

Muñoz is more optimistic. He says he does think it’s possible to see legislation in a special session and that he plans to submit the issue for an interim study. Discussions, he said, are ongoing and said the issue has merit.

“This was based on feedback from our own constituents,” he said. “It wasn’t anything personal, it wasn’t a jab at them, as some people from STISD have commented. This was brought to us from our constituents because of the tax rate, and the reason the taxes were being made.”

Despite the bills not passing in the regular session, Muñoz described the progress they did make as a victory.

“Some of these issues take several sessions to get through, because they’re a little more of a heavy lift,” he said. “So it takes one or two sessions.”