4 Major Errors In A Realtor's PTO Pitch Against Prop 1

Last night I attended a PTO meeting at a Houston ISD elementary school across town. A friend of mine has a child there and knew the PTO had invited a speaker to discuss HISD Proposition 1. I was curious to see what was said and asked, so I went along.

The invited speaker used to have children at the school and is a local realtor. He also introduced himself as being on Houston Board of Realtors’ political affairs committee and passed out flyers and information supporting a voting no on HISD Proposition 1.

Disappointedly, only one side of the debate had been invited to speak, and as I listened to the speaker, I was disheartened to hear so many errors in fact while he presented himself as a school finance expert. He even said, his committee had “dug into” this issue as “deep as anyone can.”

Given that it wasn’t my school and I wasn’t asked to speak, I thought it better to wait and clear up his misstatements in a blog post where everyone could take the time to read and follow links to source information. Here it goes…

Error #1

In suggesting that school finance formulas determining property wealth were unfair because they didn’t account for homestead exemptions like Houston ISD’s 20% exemption on top of its $25,000 base exemption, the speaker stated that almost all districts in the state have this exemption and that it was unfair to count taxes that school districts don’t collect as a part of their wealth. He suggested that this homestead exemption fix was something tangible that the state legislature could fix for all school districts.

This is false. 

If we look at Houston area school districts and their allowed homestead exemptions, we can see that all of them have the base $25,000 exemption while less than half of them have an additional percentage exemption. Furthermore, only a third of districts that have this extra exemption have it set at highest level of 20% like HISD — and the majority of those 20% exemption districts in recapture.

This isn’t an accident. The districts with the most property wealth can afford higher exemptions. Those without the wealth need as much broad-based revenue as they are able to generate in order to adequately fund their schools.

Error #2

The speaker, in answering a question about other district’s experiences, said that Austin had gone into recapture about four years ago and that their payment was only $29 million when the voted and that in a few years was now $400 million.

This is false.

Austin ISD went into recapture 15 years ago in 2001. And unlike the characterization Austin’s recapture took a quick, straight line to $400 million, AISD’s recapture payments have actually gone up and down over the years landing at $266 million this year. It is important to note that if AISD voters had chosen detachment (by voting no to attendance credits) they would have been locking in that year’s recapture payment forever without regard to the future fluctuations in property values and student enrollment. Attendance credits may sound confusing — but they aren’t designed as a trick. They’re a means to an end, and that end is giving the ability to districts to pay into the Robin Hood system in an efficient and flexible manner that can change over time as the circumstances in a district or the provision of school finance law evolve.

Error #3

The speaker made several references to voting YES as being permanent. 

This is misleading.

Any referendum that allows voters to authorize a practice can be reversed by another referendum. If voters approve an amendment to the Texas Constitution does that mean the law is permanent? Yes. Does that mean the law can’t be changed later? No.

Furthermore, the speaker fails to mention the part of Robin Hood that allows trustees to approve detachment to pay for recapture without voter approval. The HISD school board could chosen detachment themselves this year and saved us the money of an election and all the back and forth in the public square. They had the power themselves to force the issue with the state. 

And in future years, even if we vote FOR Proposition 1, they could still use that power to choose detachment. 

Why don’t they do this? For one simple reason: Detachment costs more. Voting FOR attendance credits will cost $162 million this year and voting against will cost $193 million. Over 4 years, voting against will cost a least $231 million more in lost revenue.

The speaker never brought this up. Presenting Proposition 1 as two, equally bad choices is a fallacy. 

Voting against may be a reasonable gamble to some. However, once parents know that the political showdown officials want us to participate in by voting no comes with a $231 million price tag, most of us are unwilling to gamble our kids’ classrooms and teachers for a protest vote. 

Especially when this speaker and every other elected official advocating for a no vote cannot point to an equitable school finance plan being sponsored by any legislator heading into the January session. Not only is voting no a gamble, it’s a bad bet.

Error #4

Answering another question, the speaker said multiple times that the detachment could be either commercial or residential property. Unlike a lot of the errors stated here, I haven't heard this one ever before because it is…

Just flat wrong.

See the actual law here…

To round things out, here are a handful of other quick corrections to the speaker’s comments…

  • The Supreme Court ruling that required the legislature to create wealth equalization in school finance wasn’t the U.S. Supreme Court — it was the Texas Supreme Court. See Edgewood ISD v. Kirby.
  • Spring Branch ISD wasn’t an original recapture school district. They entered recapture in 2004 and have had recapture payment go up and down — even having recapture payments reduced to $0 in 2010, 2013 and 2014.
  • Robin Hood was passed in 1993 not 1994. See this awesome timeline of Texas school finance.
  • HISD Prop 1 wasn’t put on the ballot October 27. Early voting started October 24 and the HISD trustees approved the ballot measure at their August meeting.

In conclusion…

The speaker said in his closing that he has no stake in this except that he cares about good schools for kids. 

That too seems a bit disingenuous given he’s been on the board of one of the state’s largest political action committees for over a decade. The Texas Association of Realtors have been fighting Robin Hood since its inception and have always fought against property taxes of any kind. 

When experts in Austin talk about how unlikely it is that school finance will change without a court order, it's because of special interests like these. If we lower property taxes as a source of revenue for state public education, that money has to come from somewhere else. And in every fight that has come before, no consensus has ever been formed on a better place to get that money. 

Grocery stores don’t want the state taxing bananas. Newspapers don’t want the state taxing information. Business don’t want new franchise taxes. No one wants a state income tax. And no legislator in the State of Texas that plans on running for re-election is going to stand up against the lobbyists that threaten to unseat them if they suggest a new tax on anything.

At the end of the day, parents need to know two things: 

  1. Voting FOR is cheaper — at least $231 million cheaper over four years according to HISD’s own projections, and 
  2. There is no alternate plan sponsored by any state official to fix school finance. The chances of it changing just to save Houston ISD are slim to none. For those of us with kids that are counting on next year’s budget need to vote YES to keep the cost of recapture as low as possible, and then we need to band together as our own special interest (not one with million dollar donors but one with millions of voting parents) elect people to office locally and in the capitol that will put kids at the top of the spending priority list.

Vote FOR Houston ISD Proposition 1.