Local ISDs attempt to change legislation, relieve taxpayers
For decades taxpayers in Willacy, Cameron and Hidalgo counties have unknowingly been paying double taxes. But at least 20 school districts across the three counties banded together to ensure that does not happen anymore.
It recently came to light that residents in three of the Valley counties have been paying taxes to their home districts and the magnet school district South Texas ISD, regardless if they had a child in that school system. Willacy, Cameron and Hidalgo counties are the only three counties in Texas required to pay duplicate taxes. Additionally, STISD receives an average of $5,000 more funding per student than regular school districts. This funding formula and tax system is a legal and state-mandated practice that has been the norm since the 1960s. It has gone mostly unnoticed and unquestioned, until now.
Mission CISD, Sharyland ISD and a growing list of Valley districts passed resolutions to withdraw from South Texas ISD to avoid tax duplication. With the help of the South Texas Association of Schools advocacy group and state politicians, the districts hope to change the funding formula during the 2023 Texas Legislative Session.
The matter became apparent because Lyford CISD tried to go out for a bond for the first time in 20 years. The community questioned why they had to pay taxes to South Texas ISD — a school district their children were not attending. The questions spurred an investigation, which began the movement to change legislation.
Sharyland ISD and Mission CISD school boards approved the resolutions to withdraw from STISD in 6-0 votes at their respective January board of trustees meetings.
“This resolution allows us to take a step in the right direction for our taxpayers and their pocketbooks,” SISD Superintendent Dr. Maria Vidaurri said. “Sharyland ISD continues to exemplify that excellence is our tradition with award-winning programs, high academic achievement and fiscally responsible investments into our facilities.”
South Texas ISD serves middle and high school students in Willacy, Cameron and Hidalgo counties. Magnet schools like STISD have specialized instruction for students interested in particular areas of study, such as the medical field. The term magnet describes how the institutions draw students away from their normal school zones and home districts.
When the state government created the district in 1964, they intended it to serve disabled students with special needs from Willacy, Cameron and Hidalgo counties. At the time, it was the Rio Grande Rehabilitation District, and it could tax up to five cents per $100 valuation to provide its services.
However, when the federal government implemented the Individuals with Disabilities Act in 1975, districts could no longer segregate special education students. Any students enrolled at the rehabilitation center had to return to their home district. But the funding formula that relies on tax duplication never changed.
Then in the 1980s, Texas lawmakers allowed the now South Texas ISD to become a magnet school district. Since then, STISD has expanded to eight schools, including a virtual academy. Although initially only meant for academics, the institution has since opened UIL programs for sports and other extracurricular activities.
Additionally, the state legislature has since required regular school districts to have specialized career programs similar to South Texas ISD. And therein lies the issue for local district superintendents — if students can receive career and technical education in their home districts, taxpayers should not have to continue funding STISD.
“The reason they were getting those $5,000 more per child, it’s in the law because of additional materials, equipment and facilities that the special needs children needed. Well, they no longer need it,” Mission CISD Superintendent Dr. Carol Perez said regarding the now-defunct special needs institution. “However, since that’s in the law, they kept getting the money.”
FUNDING AND TAXING
All Texas public schools receive a certain amount of money from the state for every student enrolled in the district. Although South Texas ISD is a magnet district, it is still a public school because there is no fee to attend. Like any other public school, the state and taxes fund the institution.
Usually, if a child moves into a specific school district’s boundaries, they are considered a resident of that district. They must enroll in that school system, and the resident must pay taxes to that school system. South Texas ISD works the same way, except their boundary spans three counties. But unlike regular school districts, the state does not require students to enroll in STISD, yet the residents still have to pay the extra tax fee at a maximum of $0.05 in the three-county service area.
According to a South Texas Association of Schools report, the South Texas ISD receives approximately $42,231,547 from the state and another $30,921,700 from local taxes. With 5,714 students, STISD is funded at $12,612 per weighted average daily attendance, which is more than $5,000 above other districts in the region.
Superintendents in surrounding school districts have criticized how the funding disparity benefits only the South Texas ISD students and staff. Teachers and students have left their home districts to work and attend STISD schools because of higher pay, better equipment and higher-end facilities. Perez said she receives South Texas ISD fliers in the mail recruiting students to their district.
“In past years, when they would take employees from other districts, the secretary pay was very, very high,” the Mission CISD superintendent said. “And I thought, ‘How could they afford that?’ And teacher pay and administrator pay. Well this is why. So they’re competing with us. And of course, the [STISD] superintendent…he said, ‘No, no we’re your partners.’ And we all said, ‘Well if you were our partner, you wouldn’t be recruiting our students.”
South Texas ISD has responded to critics strongly opposing the funding formula change and the implication that the magnet district has a financial advantage. STISD released a statement addressing the matter.
“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,” the STISD statement said.
The two sides remain staunchly opposed. Each seeks help from state representatives and senators to support their case on the funding formula disagreement.
While local school districts passed resolutions to support the withdrawal from South Texas ISD and sent letters to state representatives and senators, South Texas ISD hired public relations firm Absolute Business Consulting to fortify their efforts.
But Mission CISD leadership wanted to make it clear the home districts seek equitable funding for all.
“What we’re saying is, either you fund us and give us $5,000 more per child. We’re not asking you to decrease [STISD funding], but get us up there. But if you don’t, then decrease them,” the MCISD superintendent said. “We should all be the same.”