Monday, February 28, 2011

Storm on the Horizon: Leander ISD


Previously I have focused my research on Round Rock ISD since that is where the bulk of my property tax dollars go, but it seems a major storm is brewing for another Williamson County school district: Leander ISD.

The Leander district has fewer students than Round Rock (30,321 compared to Round Rock's 43,008,) but according to Texas Education Agency reports, the LISD property tax rate is among the highest in the state at $1.4548. Superintendent Brett Champion, enjoys a salary of $194,399, along with other benefits, including a $1,000 per month car allowance and extra paid vacation time (beyond the usual paid breaks in the school year).

Like most Texas districts, teachers make up only 52% of LISD employees, although there are quite a few other non-teacher instructional staff members.  Curiously, although 13.4% of students are considered 'Gifted/Talented' and only 4.9% are 'Bilingual/ESL,"  the district employs 59 Bilingual/ESL teachers, but only 36 Gifted/Talented teachers. 

The most disturbing data from LISD's reports, however, are that total district expenditures are a whopping $17,084 per student. Unfortunately for Leander ISD, voters (probably the usual 4-6% that bother to vote in these elections,) have allowed the district to accumulate a shocking $1.2 Billion in bond debt.   (You won't find much of this information at the District's website, and the TEA reports are ridiculously difficult to obtain, but I've tried to make them more available at the above links.)

It seems back in 2007, the LISD School Board got a bit giddy, and even though they had just passed a $286 million bond the previous year, they convinced residents to approve a whopping $559 million bond- the largest ever in Central Texas.  The bond was purportedly to construct numerous schools, including a new regional sports stadium with a $22.5 million price tag.  A second stadium, A.C. Bible, was completely demolished and re-built for about $12 million.  While LISD did open the new state-of-the-art Vandegrift High School last year (for $117.6 million) and the John Gupton Stadium , two additional schools will be completed, but will not actually open.  The district does not have funds to hire the appropriate staff, which begs the question, why were sports stadiums a higher priority than supposedly much needed schools?

As if such massive borrowing were not disturbing enough, it seems the district has also made an annual habit of tapping their own rainy day funds to balance the budget.  In 2008 they used $4 million, in 2009 $5 million, and in 2010 took $5.9 million out of reserve funds to cover expenses.  This, in addition to as much as $8 million in stimulus funds, a one-time bump designed to 'save' jobs.  And yet, instead of cutting expenses, the board approved an across the board employee raise of 1.5% in 2009 and a 6% increase for the Superintendent in 2010.

Defenders of LISD are anxious to point out how very, very wonderful their schools are; after all, the district is 'recognized' according to the Texas Education Agency.  But the painful truth is that 16 of LISD's 37 schools inflated ratings by applying the TPM, or Texas Projection Measure.  The controversial provision allows schools to 'deem' students as passing standardized tests if the school predicts they will pass within the next few years.  In other words, students who failed are counted as passing.  Furthermore, the district has been criticized in recent years for watering down standards for high school students.

The problems facing Leander Independent School District are a cautionary tale for all of us.  Focus on federal spending and borrowing isn't going to be enough to save our country from insolvency.  We simply cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the way local entities, including school districts, are handling finances.  Unfortunately, many residents seem to think, "I entrust my children to them, therefore they must be trustworthy."  Sadly, our school districts have failed to manage finances prudently.

As expected LISD is considering all options, including significant tax increases.  What taxpayers and elected officials should be doing however, is demanding accountability and reforms to the way education funds are spent.   If allowed to maintain this dangerous course of tax-borrow-and-spend without real accountability, our education industry will slowly crush local economies and saddle our children with impossible debt.

Update:  LISD is holding two community meetings:  one tonight, February 28, at 6:15 at Vista Ridge High School, and one tomorrow, March 1, at 6:15 at Vandegrift High School.

Update: Leander ISD's 2010 tax rate is $1.4548. (Thanks Matt!)

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Millions in Stimulus Funds for Williamson County School Districts

Today Dustin Matocha pointed out that billions of dollars in stimulus funds were made available to Texas schools for the express purpose of giving school districts "the resources to avert cuts and retain teachers."  The funds were part of the 2009 stimulus bill, and districts had to apply by August of 2010 to receive money for the 2011 fiscal year.   

Dustin has discussed a few of the largest districts in the state, but here is a list of Williamson County districts and the amounts available to them according the Texas Education Agency. 

Georgetown: $2,799,487
Hutto: $1,698,706
Leander: $8,237,018
Round Rock:  $11,447,966
Taylor: $1,511,796

While I am sure the districts are very happy to have these extra funds, it is important to remember that these are one-time disbursements.  Unfortunately, it seems districts quickly become addicted to these extra funds and expect continued bailouts without scrutiny of the way they spend precious education dollars overall.  A better approach would be to encourage school districts to reform spending with a focus on educating children.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Sacred Cattle Are Lowing: State Medicaid

Yesterday the analysts at the Texas Public Policy Foundation released findings and recommendations regarding the crisis in State Medicaid Spending. As expected, the liberal-progressive herd began denouncing the proposals as 'cold-hearted, mean, eeevil' attempts to trod upon the poor. However, even without the implementation of Obamacare, the State Medicaid program has been growing far beyond a program for 'the poor,' and without reforms is on course to devastate the Texas economy.

The TPPF analysis found that the federal program forces Texas to spend about 28% of the state budget on Medicaid, but that figure will rise to 46% in 2014. Program costs are increasing at a rate of about 9% each year, but federal funds for our state have decreased significantly- by about $1.25 billion for the 2012-2013 budget cycle. Under Obamacare, state Medicaid costs will increase by 177%; If Texas is to survive, we must look for reforms and alternatives to Medicaid.

Lawmakers are looking at a proposal to transition the state from inefficient and costly Medicaid to a new TexHealth program that would provide better health care for the poor at a lower cost to taxpayers. Using free-market principles, the plan would create an interstate compact and health insurance exchange; a measure fiscal Conservatives have long advocated as a means to lowering costs. Unlike Medicaid, Texhealth would not permit Texans outside of poverty definitions to manipulate and hide personal assets as a means to qualify for full tax-payer funded health benefits.

Particularly distasteful to Liberal-Progressives is the proposal to make the state contribution to coverage subject to participant income. Under the current system Medicaid pays in full for all of the participants' health-related expenses and co-pays for care are not permitted; TexHealth would require some participants to contribute to their own health costs on a sliding scale according to income. In so doing, only the truly poor would receive a 100% subsidy, other participants would contribute to costs, and even middle class families could participate in the cost-lowering exchanges.

With or without Obamacare, state Medicaid spending is growing at an unsustainable rate, and does not allow sufficient cost-saving measures. Lawmakers have an opportunity this session to reform our healthcare spending to improve options for both poor and middle class families, and in a way that will insure the long-term fiscal health of the program and Texas in general. Despite the bovine rhetoric, when it comes to entitlement programs, Liberal-Progressives hate 'change,' unless it involves expansion and increased spending. If we are to survive, we must reform healthcare spending. It is the truly compassionate thing to do.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Protect A Woman's Right to Know

Last week the Texas Senate passed a measure amending the Informed Consent law to require abortion providers to make sonogram results available to pregnant women. The bill provides exceptions for special cases and medical emergencies, and is Constitutionally sound. This week, the State Affairs Committee will hold a public hearing on both HB 201, a companion bill to the Senate version, as well as HB 16, which proposes a new law regarding sonograms, along with new prescribed penalties for violators.

Both House proposals would help make sure women have all the information necessary before making such a monumental, life-changing decision, and with a Republican majority in the House we shouldn't have any trouble passing one of these bills. I am somewhat concerned, however, with one of the compromises made in the Senate version regarding doctor-patient interaction.

According to the Senate version, the sonogram information, as well as any other consultation need only take place 2 hours prior to the abortion, and then not necessarily with the doctor. As recent defectors from the industry have testified, loopholes in the current informed consent law allow abortion doctors to bypass contact with patients almost entirely. As a result, the patients never meet with the doctor until they are under sedation in the 'operating' room, and any purported doctor-patient relationship is non-existent.

With any other medical procedure, doctors are required to make sure patients are fully informed, and said patients must sign multiple documents indicating they have read and understood the process. Due to the political radioactivity of abortion however, women are routinely deprived of scientific, medical information that could radically change their perspective. Claiming to care about 'women's health issues' while denying women their rights as patients is a tragic hypocrisy, and it is time to make sure women have all the facts.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Education Spending: Texas vs. California

We Texans love to compare ourselves with California; we have created more private sector jobs, have a lower tax burden and lower unemployment rate, and folks are leaving the formerly 'Golden' State in droves to seek Lone Star prosperity. Without a doubt, there is much to cheer. There is one area, however, where indeed Texas is bigger, but it is nothing to celebrate.

Both states love to tout their per pupil spending, and on the surface Texas looks pretty good at $6,746 to California's $7,511. As I've pointed out previously, these per pupil statistics do not include the cost of pensions, debt service, or building/construction costs, and are seriously deceptive. When all expenditures are included Texas per pupil spending rises to $11,024, and California's to $11,800.

Not too bad, right?

Unfortunately, a comparison of certain other aspects of education spending in the two states paints a whole new picture. As it turns out Texas has more public school employees than any state in the nation. California has 1.6 million more students than Texas, but has 1,225 fewer schools, and a jaw-dropping 52,090 fewer total education personnel. While we would hope that most of our public school employees would consist of those folks who actually teach, only 51% of Texas public education employees are teachers.

In the face of potential budget cuts, Texas education bureaucrats are demanding more spending rather than cuts. However, as Governor Perry pointed out in his State of the State address last week, State spending on education has increased 82% over the last decade. Even more astounding is the fact that total Texas public school expenditures have increased 335% since 1987. While we would hope that such vast increases in spending would improve student performance, an examination of the NAEP (National Assessment for Educational Progress) results reveal that Texas student test scores have remained stagnant or have actually decreased during this period.

Many Texas school districts are claiming they will have to close schools due to budget cuts, and yes, some probably will. However, many of these districts, and the state education industry as a whole, have not applied their respective budgets appropriately. Cutting amounts of state spending on education will force closer examination of how those 'education' dollars are spent. In so doing, we need to remember that our public education system does not exist to provide jobs and pensions for all comers, but was established to provide educational opportunities to all children. Texas has done a great job of applying small but smart government standards to other areas, and this has led to our economic strength. Now it's time to get serious about education spending too.

Friday, February 11, 2011

RRISD 'Budget Reduction' Community Meeting Feb. 15

The Round Rock Independent School District will be holding a Budget Reduction community meeting on February 15, 6:30 pm, at the Round Rock High School cafeteria. (map)

The amount of expected cuts in the State's contribution to the ISD range rather widely; anywhere from $17 million on up, with Superintendent Jesus Chavez claiming it could be $73 million.  RRISD will have to enact cuts to their $336 million budget.

Over the past few weeks we've learned:
-The ISD has $198 million in its own rainy day fund.
-The ISD has an additional $92 million in the debt reserve fund.
-Total district expenditures per student is $11,420. (TEA AEIS Reports)
-RRISD is heavy on administration and administrator salaries:

Of the 5,423 Employees:
-179 are administrative staff members
-555 are 'paraprofessional' staff members
-1,200 are 'auxiliary' staff members
-53.8% of the total staff are teachers

-The average salary at Central Administration is $88,794.
-The Superintendent's salary is $252, 875 (plus generous benefits, although reportedly the superintendent is repaying the illegal bonus he received in 2010 ).
-There are 4 Assistant/Associate/Deputy Superintendents, adding $548,338 to the budget.

While it is never pleasant to cut budgets, this is a very good opportunity for parents and taxpayers to closely examine the way the district is spending education dollars, and make suggestions for change.  The non-profit, non-partisan Texas Public Policy Foundation has some in-depth analysis and suggestions here.

Surely it is possible to educate children for less than $11,420 each.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

RRISD Gave Superintendent Improper Bonus

KXAN Investigates has a great story tonight on School District Superintendent salaries. Some of the district stories are pretty shocking; for example, despite learning of the budget shortfall, Bastrop ISD gave Superintendent Steve Murray an immediate $20,000 raise, and approved another $10,000 to be paid in March.

In Williamson County, the Leander ISD Superintendent's contract guarantees an annual 6% raise, and, along with Round Rock's Super Super, he gets extra weeks of paid vaction time. However, RRISD superintendent Jesus Chavez may accrue unused vacation time to cash out a later time, presumably at a higher salary.

Also, RRISD pays an extra $6,000 per year for premiums on his private life insurance policy, but here's the real scandal:

And in Round Rock ISD, superintendent Jesus Chavez’s contract allows the Board of Trustees to award him no more than $10,000 for reaching certain performance levels.

However, last September, the board awarded him an extra $5,000 as a one-time bonus. In addition, Chavez was also awarded a $6,750 bonus in the form of an annuity.

After a call from KXAN, the district responded that he wasn't supposed to get that $5,000 bonus, and that he's paying it back to the district with interest - and then the district thanked KXAN for bringing it to their attention.

Dude. And we wonder why the district is spending over 11,000 for each student.

And hey, look whose signature is on the contract...


Governor Perry: No Sacred Cows

In today's State of the State Address, Governor Rick Perry told Texans “The state of the State is strong.” Perry noted that Texas added more jobs in 2010 than any other state, has six of the nation's 20 strongest metro areas, and that sales tax revenues have grown for 10 consecutive months. However, he pointed out that while our unemployment rate at 7.9% is lower than the national average, there are still many Texas families who need jobs, and we need to take steps to maintain our competitive edge.

Among the Governor's proposals were calls to continue to remove “senseless obstacles to economic growth,” and to maintain a predictable regulatory environment. In reference to recent disputes with President Obama and the EPA, Perry pointed out that under Texas' Flexible Permitting Program, the state reduced ozone levels by 27% and Nox levels by 53%, and still created more private sector jobs than any other large state in the nation.

One especially controversial area Governor Perry addressed, is that of the State's $9 million 'rainy day fund'. While there are many voices calling for using those funds to offset revenue shortfalls, the Governor says that using the account to pay for “recurring expenses” is a bad idea. “That approach would not only postpone tough, necessary decisions, but also leave us ill-equipped to handle bigger emergencies in the future.” I think I am inclined to agree with the Texas Senate that some rainy day funds should be used to pay for the deficit in the current biennium, but the 2012-13 budget should not rely on rainy day funds in any way.

Lefty pundits on the Twitter feed immediately began referring to potential school closings as a qualified emergency, but I think they have missed the point. Keeping a school open is a recurring expense, and it would be better for the state AND the school districts to re-work budgets with more efficient spending. While our school districts are bragging about low per-pupil operating expenditures, the truth is that Texas actually spends over $11,000 per student on 'education.' Furthermore, there is nearly one non-teaching staff member for every teaching staff member across the state. I'm sure the left-of-center crowd will scream (or moo?) about layoffs, but the purpose of our education system should be to educate children, not to provide more jobs.

Along those lines, Perry also called out Congressman Lloyd Doggett for his infamous Doggett Amendment, an attachment to last year's so-called 'Education Jobs Bill' that withholds from Texas $830 million in federal education funding unless the Governor somehow manages to circumvent the state constitution and the legislature to fund education at unsustainable levels. The truth is that the state has increase education funding by 82% over the last decade, but districts continue to outspend revenue with dangerous levels of borrowing.

As Governor Perry stated, "there should be no sacred cows in this business." He has led the way by cutting his own portion of the state budget by $34.6 million, and is supporting consolidation of agencies at the state level. Funding education is, and will continue to be a priority for the state, however, a blank check to anything labeled 'education spending' is neither sustainable nor desirable. Bureaucrats in education must also tighten the belt and make sure resources are spent wisely and appropriately.

State of The State

Governor Rick Perry will deliver his State of the State Address to a joint session of the House and Senate today at 11:00am, and a live webcast is available here. 

While lots of our liberal-progressive friends are trying to say Texas is just as bad as California, the truth is that while we too are feeling the effects of the national recession, Texas remains an economic stand-out in the nation.  Unemployment in Texas is 7.9%, while the national average is 9.8.  California, on the other hand, is bearing an unemployment rate of over 12%. As far as the state budget goes, while revenue projections are down due to a struggling economy, Texas lawmakers are planning a budget that only spends what we have, and no more.  Crazy, right?

The real problem for Texas isn't so much with the state government, but with local governments who are borrowing and spending at dangerous levels.  Our school districts are spending over $11,000 per student on average, and local bond debt service amounts are staggering.  Unfunded mandates from the state play a small role, but many local governments, especially education bureaucrats, really do want the mandates (e.g. classroom size limits,) they just want the state to pay for them via increased taxes.  It really is time for everyone to tighten the belt.

Video chat rooms at Ustream

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Some Inconvenient Truths About Per-Pupil Expenditures At Round Rock ISD

Many Texas School Districts are claiming they will have to lay off teachers and increase classroom-size in the face of budget cuts from the state. A closer scrutiny of some of these districts however, reveals that there are areas other than teaching staff that would be logical to cut. The Round Rock District has an astounding $200 million in its rainy day fund that would more than cover state cuts, and examination of district expenses reveal that there are many other opportunities for savings.

One area that seems especially prime is non-teaching staff salaries.  According to policy analysts, growth in administrator and support staff salaries has far outpaced that for teachers.  In the Round Rock district, first-year teacher salaries stand at about $42k, but average central administration salary is more than twice that: $88,794. Ten of those central administration employees make well over $120,000, but of course the most eye-popping salary goes to the Superintendent at $252,875.

In contrast with most RRISD employees, Superintendent Jesus Chavez has enjoyed annual raises for a total 23.5% in increases since his original hire contract in 2006. (This while private sector wages have been steadily decreasing, and unemployment has roared to 10%.) Teacher salaries, on the other hand have grown at a much slower rate with increases of 1-4% each year.  Not only does Dr. Chavez enjoy a hefty annual salary, but also receives many other benefits, including bonus pay of up to $10,000 a year, an annual contribution of $10,000 to his retirement account, and a $5,800 expense account for which he does not have to submit receipts. (Thanks to former ISD Board President Diana Maldonado.)

Taxpayers also pay for Superintendent Chavez' membership in various professional 'associations.'  One of those 'associations' is the Texas Association of School Administrators, where Chavez is a member of the Legislative Committee. The TASA legislative priorities are very much in line with left-of-center education policies in demanding more funding with little or no reform.  For example, TASA is asking the State to build automatic increases into the education budget, to give districts the power to raise property taxes without voter approval, and opposes caps on the amount of tax that can be levied on property.  Furthermore, the group opposes any financial assistance for families who cannot use their assigned public school, since that might take funds away from the district.  (In other words, if parents cannot afford to seek alternatives for special needs education, too bad.)

While the Round Rock Independent School District likes to advertise that their operating expenditures per student is only $7,505, if we include all costs for the district, (such as debt service, teacher pensions, and building and remodeling,)  the total expenditure per student is $11,196.   (State average is $11,024).  Furthermore, when we calculate per classroom spending (multiplying per pupil spending by average classroom size) claims that Texas schools are spending 65% on classroom instruction crumble.  (for example, teacher salaries are only 18-20% of classroom spending.) 

RRISD receives 17% of its revenue from the state, and is properly preparing for cuts.  However, claiming that the only way to survive is to eliminate teaching positions is disingenuous at best, and there are many non-teaching expenses that may be cut.  Perhaps a good starting point for RRISD would be to stop funding membership in left-leaning 'associations,' cut the superintendent's salary back to the rate on his original contract, and cut all administrator salaries by 20%. I realize this would pose quite a hardship on poor Dr. Chavez, but we in the private sector have been making those adjustments for several years now, and I assure him, it can be done. After all, no state governor in the U.S. makes anywhere near Dr. Chavez' salary, and they all seem to do just fine. 

The districts' response to such suggestions have been a snippy statement that it wouldn't be enough to make up the cuts.  No, but it is a start, and as the adage goes, you eat an elephant 'one bite at a time.'