Guest Column: District prioritizes: Priority Two

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This is part two in a four-part series of editorials regarding the Legislative Priorities adopted by Sealy ISD Board of Trustees in November 2016.

Just as with a household budget, school districts have to keep a little in reserve in case the unexpected happens. Roofs leak, bus transmissions give out, and sometimes we have to deal with a flood. We have learned to anticipate the unexpected, but surprises in the form of unfunded mandates can and should be avoided. One of the Legislative Priorities adopted by the Sealy ISD Board of Trustees addresses this issue. It states:

"Sealy ISD believes that the Texas Legislature should not pass any legislation unless they have thoroughly analyzed the benefits and costs, and are committed to adequately funding the mandate."

This is a reasonable request. Here is an example of an unfunded requirement that was recently enacted. Senate Bill 507 was signed into law in the last legislative session. It requires that audio and visual cameras be placed in self-contained special education classrooms when requested by a parent, staff, or school board member. Sealy ISD budgeted $100,000 to comply with this new statute. That may sound high, but it's not just the cost of the camera equipment. Additional wiring, software, hardware, and storage servers are required to meet the retention requirements of the law. If Sealy ISD budgeted $100,000 to cover the cost of this new legislation, imagine the costs to larger districts. There were no additional funds from the state to address these costs, so we had to adjust our budget elsewhere. Statewide, we are talking millions of dollars. Do the costs justify the means? Is there any evidence of widespread misconduct warranting such legislation?

Another surprise has come from the tangled web that is state required testing. Recently it was determined that students taking the Texas English Language Proficiency Assessment System (TELPAS) exam must test using computers. In order to do this, we have been required to order expensive noise-canceling headphones. The costs aren't as high as the example given above, but it's still money that has to be diverted from other needs. The TELPAS testing is one small element of a much bigger picture. For perspective, it may be helpful to cite an excerpt of a memorandum on testing to then Commissioner of Education, Michael Williams, dated May 7, 2015.

"The projected budget for the student assessment program in the 2016/2017 biennium is $85,029,462 for each year. Assuming this budget amount remains constant for the 2018/2019 biennium, approximately $340 million is available to support the student assessment program over the next four years."

In Texas, testing is big business, and big money. Perhaps this might be a place to look for solutions to fund a few of those unfunded mandates. In a state that ranks 43rd out of 50 in per pupil spending, is this really the best use of taxpayer money? But, that's another topic for another day.

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