With early voting underway, some voters are trudging through the writing on a less-publicized ballot item that could have a big impact on Houston students and taxpayers for years to come.
The wording on Houston Independent School District’s Proposition 1 asks voters to vote for or against letting HISD buy attendance credits from the state with their property taxes.
In plain English, it’s a vote over whether to send money away to other school districts through recapture, also known as “Robin Hood," where districts deemed “property wealthy” are required by state law to send money back to the state to give out to less affluent districts.
“The choices we have been given are awful choices, so you make the best choice that you can,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner, who served in the Texas State Legislature for 26 years, including 21 years on the Appropriations Committee.
Turner says there’s only one choice he believes will force state lawmakers to fix Texas’ school finance system: voting against Proposition 1. He is currently appearing in television ads opposing the measure.
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HISD officials say a “For” vote means sending over $1 billion in recapture money to the state over a four-year timeframe, beginning in Spring 2017 with a $162 million payment, made in the form of attendance credits. District officials say the payments would continue each year “for the foreseeable future” in higher and higher amounts, all without additional voter approval.
“No one anticipated that Houston Independent School District would be under recapture,” Turner said.
However, in 2016, HISD became a “property wealthy” district subject to recapture thanks to rising property values in Houston and a school finance system ruled constitutional. That means HISD will be sending money to help out other Texas school districts while 76.1% of their students come from low income families.
So what does a vote “Against” Prop 1 mean?
“Then the Texas Education Agency will detach commercial property from HISD and reassign it to the tax rolls of other districts,” says the narrator of a video about Prop 1 posted on HISD’s website.
The tax base of that property would total about $18 billion and be detached starting in July 2017, with the most valuable properties selected first. That’s 30 to 40 commercial properties that the district will never get back, according to an op-ed written by Tammy Betancourt, CEO of the Houston Building Owners and Managers Association.
It’s a measure Betancourt worries could make it harder for HISD to pay back debt, possibly meaning higher taxes for homeowners, and the reason why her organization is urging a “For” vote.
Betancourt also accuses HISD of “taking a short-term view of a long-term problem, and that will hurt the City of Houston in the long run.”
But HISD says those state mandated cuts have already meant slashing $40 million from their campus budgets during the current school year, money that could impact class size, tutoring, and education programs.