Pre-K In Danger, Tax Rolls Down, HISD Looks For The Rabbit In The Hat

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Houston ISD's tax rolls look to be down 4.32 percent in the next year, with a loss of almost $5 billion in assessed values for 2011 over 2010. Most of the lost money is coming from lowered commercial property values, with the least decrease among residential property owners.

Things could be even worse if the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality rewrites its language on pollution exemptions. Right now, chemical companies operating in HISD don't get any exemptions if their chemical scrubbing work doesn't decrease pollution "on site" even if their efforts lower the pollution level of the final product sold in, say, California.

TCEQ is now considering striking the "on site" requirement which would mean a loss of millions of dollars to the district and others like it (Corpus Christi) and no reduction in pollution here, school board trustees were told at their board workshop this morning by Superintendent Terry Grier and his staff.

At the same time that HISD shows decreasing tax revenues, the state should fill in with more money, but there are questions about how much it will be able to do with its own depleted coffers.

In fact, the state's financial problems could mean removal of its funding for pre-K programs in Houston ISD and elsewhere, school board members learned. The announcement came shortly after Grier had said that the district has shown real progress among its students enrolled in full day pre-K.

Chief Financial Officer Melinda Garrett delivered the pre-K news -- nothing is in writing, but there's been talk about this in the Texas Education Agency ranks. Grier explained that if the district loses that money, either the pre-K program may go away or move to half-day (the state fund provides for half-day; the school district the balance) or Title I funds now used for other things could be redirected to pre-K. But he said that would result in other Title I students losing some of their funds.

Trustee Harvin Moore was most outraged, saying that "If TEA is thinking of this we need to tell our parents to contact the people who are making the decision."

It was another day of sober news for the district, like many in the state, facing budget shortfalls in the next school year and beyond, even though Garrett, known for her financial wizardry, promised a balanced budget soon.

As Grier glumly noted, while making the point that there are some hard choices ahead for trustees: The district has been pulling rabbits out of a hat for years in making its budget work.

"We're letting you know that the rabbits are no longer in the hat."

Some proposal highlights:

-- HISD is considering changing some bus route times to save money, knowing that this always stirs up a lot of anger and concern among parents.

-- Even before the federal health care overhaul, it will cost the district another $10 million next year for health insurance costs.

-- Pending an attorney general's opinion, it may cost the district another $7.3 million to fund a step increase for teachers.

-- Thanks to changes in federal and state regulations about unemployment benefits (adding on additional weeks of coverage) it will cost the district another $1.8 million next year for unemployment insurance

-- The district doesn't even know how much exactly it's in the bag for several maintenance contracts whose (RFP) Requests for Proposal "were not well-written," according to Garrett. These were handled by recently departed Chief Business Officer Dick Lindsay, she said. Work was done without it being actually approved at 25 schools and the add-ons may cost something like $2 million, she said.

-- The district which has been looking at cutting down its home schooling ranks, may be contracting out with the Texas Connections Academy to provide those services.

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