education
12:11 pm
Mon November 15, 2010

School Finance Expert "Shocked" Over Report of Rich Districts Withholding Cash

An AP investigation published in several papers this morning found that dozens of "property-wealthy" school districts held on to money they were supposed to send to the state under the so-called Robin Hood law.

In order to maintain an equitable education system across Texas, as mandated by the state constitution, Texas "recaptures" money from rich school districts and redistributes it to poor ones. The system is outlined in Chapter 41 of the Education Code.  Austin ISD, for example, sent about $127 million to the state in its 2010/11 budget.

The Texas Education Agency, according to the AP investigation, discovered that wealthy school districts had withheld about $40 million in payments.

The TEA reviewed the work of the employee responsible for monitoring "Robin Hood" payments and discovered in July that 38 districts owed $43.1 million that was either past due or due by the end of August, according to agency records obtained by the AP under the Texas Public Information Act. When the letters went out, 23 districts still owed $15 million that should have been paid months earlier to settle up for the 2008-2009 school year.

Most of the districts paid what they owed after receiving the letters, said Lisa Dawn-Fisher, the agency's deputy associate commissioner for school finance.

Dawn-Fisher said the review, the first of its kind by the agency, led the TEA to fire the employee and change its policy on collections. Instead of dealing strictly with school district business managers, the agency now contacts superintendents as well, she said.

"Definitely more attention should have been paid on all sides here," Dawn-Fisher said.

One education funding expert told KUT News that he found it hard to believe any school district could accidentally withhold recapture money from the state.

"I'm really shocked about it, just do to the nature of recapture," Equity Center executive director Wayne Pierce told KUT News. "The idea that a district would not know whether or not they had paid their recapture to the state is just nearly beyond belief."

"I talked with a friend of who has been a superintendent in both property poor and property wealthy districts. He told me that if there was just one number that he would know about his district, it would be the recapture amount," Pierce added, saying the issue is so politically volatile that it's usually on the front mind of any administrator.

"TEA has become more vigilant over the past few years. It's remarkable just how much they have done to get a stronger grip on what's happening in a very complex school finance arena," Pierce said.