Taking a Look at the Poorest School District in Texas

When Superintendent Graham Sweeney arrived at the Boles Independent School District 33 years ago, school buildings were crumbling. Teachers taught two grade levels at a time. One hundred fifty-six students were enrolled.

The Austin American-Statesman reports the Boles district, 50 miles northeast of Dallas, collected the least local property tax revenue per student of any district in the state. Boles still ranks last by that measure, but education there has improved dramatically, thanks to the state's school finance system, that, for all of its flaws, has lifted up the poorest school districts in the state.

"When I first came here as a superintendent, we didn't have a maintenance director or anything, so I ordered -- and it was a big deal -- $7.77 of nuts and bolts ... and put it in my closet and about $20 worth of tools. I helped mow at the time. Buying a mower for $600 was a big deal," Sweeney said. "We were just scraping by. There were times we were in the red, and we wondered how we could keep going."

Poor districts like Boles sued the state and won in 1989, creating a system aimed at equalizing the wide disparity in local property tax revenue by shifting tax revenue from property-rich districts to help property-poor districts. The process is called recapture, but it is often colloquially referred to as Robin Hood.

The Legislature also created pots of money in the late 1990s to help property-poor districts pay for constructing facilities.

Infused with more funding from other school districts and the state, Boles transformed in subsequent years. Test scores skyrocketed. Innovative programs like robotics and agricultural mechanics started at the district. Now, anywhere from 50 to 75 students are on the waiting list to enroll in the district.

With state lawmakers this year focused on reducing the reliance on local property taxes to fund the state's public schools, they are re-examining the recapture system, which places an increasing burden on districts like Austin, the highest payer of recapture in the state.

The Austin ISD sends more than a half billion dollars of its property tax revenue to the state, which then uses it to prop up districts like Boles, 9 square miles of mostly farmland.

Yet even with about 90 percent of its funding coming from the state, the Boles school district, like many of its peers across the state, still operates modestly, relying on used equipment and supplies. Like Boles, the majority of the districts that rely most on state aid are sparsely populated and rural.

Some state officials have suggested eliminating the recapture system as part of a school finance system overhaul this legislative session, but that is unlikely, as the system is seen as equalizing funding for districts. Lawmakers instead could decrease property-wealthy districts' recapture payments by increasing state funding.

"A lot of the people ... who have been driving this whole `reduce or eliminate recapture' discussion have had to face reality in a hard way," said Josh Sanderson with the Equity Center, which represents property-poor school districts and supports a recapture system.

"What we have been preaching to them is as long as you have a system of funding schools based largely on property taxes, you have to have some method to go in and capture the resources where they are and distribute to where the students are. That's what recapture is."

Before becoming a public school district in 1937, the schools were privately run to solely serve the children of Boles Orphans' Home located in Quinlan, founded by William and Mary Boles who were orphaned as children.

The facility, just a few steps from the district, now serves single mothers and at-risk children. About 50 students who live at the facility attend district schools. The elementary school is still housed in 60-year-old buildings the home had built.

With the help of state funding and a push to build enrollment through marketing and word of mouth over the years, Boles has become a district of choice, Sweeney said.

Small class sizes and a variety of education and extracurricular offerings, from a football team and band to college-credit courses and American Sign Language classes, have drawn families from as far away as Dallas. More than 70 percent of the district's 543 students, the highest enrollment in the district's history, are transfer students.

"With Boles, I just heard wonderful things -- high test scores, smaller class sizes, never heard of any bullying. Everyone there is family," said Kerri Gibbs, the mom of a first-grade transfer student. Gibbs put her son on the wait list when he was 2 years old.

The district boasts a culinary program run by a former restaurant executive chef, who also prepares meals like chicken and dumplings and chargrilled smoked sausage for students every day.

Students also can take agricultural mechanics classes in which they build dirt levelers, meat smokers and farming equipment to bring to competitions. Community members often ask for pieces in exchange for donations. Recently, the district received $1,500 for a customized trailer.

Possibly the district's proudest offering is its robotics classes, which students can start participating in at the middle school level.

On a recent afternoon, high school students showed how they won third place at a state competition in December by programming their robot to navigate an obstacle course while picking up different objects.

Their teacher Cheryl Hobbs said people are surprised to see that a district of Boles' size has a robotics team, "and that we're successful."

The next morning, a middle school group contemplated how to wire a controller to an underwater robot. Other students were refining another robot for an upcoming statewide competition.

"Many of our kids will probably never move out of Hunt County, and so any experiences we can give them will hopefully open up the rest of the world to them," said Michael Sanderson, one of the two middle school robotics teachers.

Although his district has benefited from the recapture system, Sweeney says the state needs to look at reducing recapture payments for property-wealthy districts.

"I used to preach that yes, we should all share the wealth. But I'm not sure that we should be extracting the funds from other communities," Sweeney said. He suggests the state redirect tax revenue collected from businesses, not school districts, to help fund property-poor districts like his.

The state's school funding formulas dictate how much money a district should receive per student based on a variety of factors, such as geographic location and how many students from poor families or students studying English as a second language are enrolled in the district. If a district generates local property tax revenue less than the dictated amount, the state makes up the difference. And if a district generates money above that per-student amount, then it must send the excess to the state.

The funding formulas, however, are based on multipliers that are outdated and no longer reflect the actual costs of educating Texas students.

In addition, some districts already struggling with high recapture payments that have lost students to publicly funded charter schools are allowed to keep less local revenue and thus must pay higher recapture payments. Because charter schools don't generate any property revenue and are reliant on state funding, their critics argue that recapture payments actually go to pay for charter schools, and not property-poor districts.

And, as property values and recapture payments have ballooned, the state has dropped its share of public education funding to 38 percent, down 10 percentage points over the last five years.

All those factors combined explain why many Texas school districts, property-wealthy and property-poor alike, are underfunded.

Longtime Boles school board member Linda Pitts, who now serves as board president, said she believes Boles is as successful as it can be with the money the state has provided. But, she also notes that it doesn't have the same amenities that other districts do.

"These big districts that have these big budgets -- they've got access to these funds within their own district because they have industry, and we don't. To be able to have more funds allows us to provide more opportunity for our kids to dream big," Pitts said.

Boles also has reached the statutory cap of the maintenance and operation tax rate -- $1.17 per $100 of property valuation -- the revenue of which pays for the district's day-to-day operations. Combined with interest and sinking tax rate, revenue of which is used to pay off construction debt, Boles' overall tax rate is $1.54, 35 cents higher than in the Austin district.

Based on how the state's school finance system works, construction of schools is usually paid for by borrowing against local property tax revenue and some state funding, so property-poor districts typically have older buildings. Boles Elementary School, for example, was built in the 1950s.

"It's the property-poor districts that always have the highest (interest and sinking) tax rates. The state has two programs to help poverty-poor districts when it comes to facilities funding. Those programs were created in the very late '90s and they've never been adjusted," said Sanderson with the Equity Center.

Since it is so small and surrounded by the much larger Quinlan school district, the district has entertained discussions of consolidating with another district, but Pitts said its community doesn't want it.

"We are family here," Pitts said

Sweeney has been constantly trying to find ways to grow enrollment -- and with it, more state funding -- by purchasing billboards, passing out brochures at community events and even getting a state law passed that lets districts open campuses outside of their boundaries.

Sweeney in the past has considered opening campuses in Houston and Greenville that would be controlled by the Boles district. Although those plans have fallen through, Sweeney is still open to the idea.

In the meantime, he tries to save money wherever he can.

Bathroom stalls, bleachers, furniture and computers were hand-me-downs from a local university and the much wealthier Highland Park school district in Dallas. In the last few years, Boles officials have bought old band uniforms from the Mesquite district, which has the same black and green spirit colors as Boles, and sewed on their own patches.

Amassing enough money to build awnings and parking lots in recent years excites district employees, Pitts said.

After several years of saving, the district will finally start construction on a $30,000 to $40,000 track soon. When they can't make it to a neighboring school district for practice, students run on a rock driveway or in a grass field.

The field "is uneven and you risk turning ankles. We laugh because we say that we're best track team in Texas without a track," said high school track coach Lamont Hearn, who has sent two students over the last five years to state competitions.

If given more money, teachers and principals said they would love to see more reliable internet in their buildings, smart boards in their classrooms, an extra classroom for robotics and more Chromebooks for their students.

Students like Mateo Dierra, 17, would love to see more class offerings, including in business, trigonometry and calculus.

"That's most of the problem -- we want this class, this class or this class, but who's going to teach it?" Dierra said.

The high school has chosen to offer dual credit courses, which give students high school and college credit at the same time, in lieu of Advance Placement classes in part because of the cheaper price tag. The district does not have to put up as much money for the dual credit courses because the partnering college will supplement the teachers' salaries.

Sweeney said if he had more money, he'd pay his teachers more to attract and retain high-quality teachers. The district would welcome a $5,000 pay raise a Senate bill would give all Texas classroom teachers, but it wouldn't necessarily make the district more competitive.

The starting salary of a Boles teacher is $34,580, as much as $16,000 less than districts only a few miles away.

Teachers across the state, including Boles, are barely making enough to pay for the rising cost of health insurance.

"One of the sore subjects for me is health care and our insurance. We pay so much for health care, and a lot of times we don't even use it because we go with the high deductible plan because it costs less. It's frustrating," said Boles teacher Angie Riley, who up until recently was paying $1,000 a month in premiums because her son was on her plan.

After teaching for 23 years, Riley makes $52,000 year. She and her husband, who works for another school district, are only able to make ends meet because they own a few side businesses, including selling fireworks and renting out bounce houses.

But Riley said she is willing to make those sacrifices to remain at Boles.

She left a few years ago to make $10,000 more annually at a nearby school district, but returned to Boles because of the benefits of smaller class sizes, including less work, forming closer relationships with students and families, and less pressure from administrators to earn high marks on state standardized tests.

"It's not about the money," she said. "I'm a lot happier. I'm a lot less stressed. I feel like this is home."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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