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State payments strain Harvey-battered school districts

State payments strain Harvey-battered school districts

February 10th, 2019 by Associated Press in Texas News

In this Jan. 15, 2019 photo, two water diverters drip into a trash cans at at the Rockport-Fulton Middle School while students have class in Rockport, Texas. Air-conditioning units were torn off the rooftops of schools at the Aransas County school district during Hurricane Harvey, leaving holes in the roofs. (Ana Ramirez/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

ROCKPORT, Texas—Texas' school finance system is putting additional strain on two coastal districts that lost millions of dollars after Hurricane Harvey and now owe the state millions more.

Port Aransas and Aransas County districts are seeking relief from ballooning recapture payments this year as schools struggle to pay teachers and meet student needs after the 2017 storm, the Austin American-Statesman reported.

Aransas County district officials plan to cut 25 jobs next school year, in addition to the 59 positions cut since 2017-2018.

The district will likely have to pay $7 million of its local property tax revenue to the state by August. It accounts for about 20 percent of the district's budget.

The district is considered property rich under the state's school funding formula, so some of its property tax revenue is redistributed to districts that are considered property poor.

Aransas County owes $2 million more this year because the state's formula calculated the payment using pre-Harvey property values, which were 14 percent higher than now, with post-Harvey enrollment rates. The district currently has 500 fewer students than before the storm.

The finance system relies on a one-year lag on property tax values so the state and districts can better estimate recapture payments.

District students are still living in half-gutted homes and in need of mental health and social services after the storm.

Construction crews plaster the walls of the Odyssey After School Enrichment Program in Rockport, Texas, on Jan. 16, 2019. The center was damaged during Hurricane Harvey. (Ana Ramirez/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

Construction crews plaster the walls of the Odyssey...

"We have a lot of issues still going on, and these kids are 100 percent our priority," said Michaela Alston, an Aransas County school board member. "In order for them to be better out in the community, we need to give them everything they need here at school. If the state is robbing from us, we can't do the job that we're supposed to be doing."

The nearby Port Aransas district lost the same amount of property tax revenue as Aransas County, and officials are facing a $14 million recapture payment. The payment accounts for 75 percent of the district's budget.

State lawmakers are looking to fix the state's school finance system this session. A bill filed last month would set aside $906 million from Texas' rainy day fund to help Harvey-affected school districts, with part of the money intended to eliminate the impact of districts' property tax revenue loss.

"Texas must see that Harvey-impacted schools have funds to operate as they regrow their community and enrollment," Republican Sen. Lois Kolkhorst said.

"Solutions are being crafted during the ongoing Legislature."

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