Today is the last day for early voting in the May 10th municipal elections.
Voters in the Eanes Independent School District are deciding on a $89.5 million school bond package. If approved, the bond package would allow Eanes ISD to borrow money for a new elementary school, as well as some technology and classroom upgrades.
The proposal is the result of three years of community meetings about the future of the school district.
"I don't think I've been a part of any other effort that was as grassroots efforts as this," says Eanes parent Mike McDonell. "This was not a bond that was concocted at a boardroom in the administration building behind closed doors. It's something that's been a part of this community for three years and I feel very proud about that."
It's also part of a 10-year plan for district schools and buildings. McDonnell says the district needs to repair some facilities and create new ones that keep up with the changing ways students are educated.
"A facility that is situated, furniture that is applicable for a collaborative teaching environment," McDonell says. "We can't do that in every school, but we can do it in one school and learn from that and hopefully make education in the classroom and more collaborative and more 21st century."
The school district says the bond would help eliminate portable classrooms.
Meanwhile, a group opposing the bond proposal in Eanes ISD is urging people to vote against the $89.5 million bond package, unless Eanes stops allowing students from out of the district to transfer in.
“These students actually cost us money, in the neighborhood of $1,400 a year per student, when we look at the money we actually spend less the reimbursement from the state,” said Al Cowan, a former Eanes ISD board president and founder of the group Citizens for Academic Excellence in Eanes (CAEE).
Cowan says that the money it takes to educate each student is more than the reimbursement received by the state, but Eanes ISD’s Claudia McWhorter says that isn’t an accurate depiction of what’s really going on. She says many of the district’s costs are static, and transfers fill empty classroom seats. Without them, she says the cost per in-district student would be higher.
According to Texas law, districts can decide whether or not to accept inter-district transfers, but it's unclear how many districts accept such students since the TEA doesn't currently track the numbers.
Typically, transfer students fill empty seats in classrooms, decreasing the total cost per student and lowering the amount wealthier districts pay back to the state under recapture, says Daniel Casey, a partner at the education consulting firm, Moak, Casey & Associates. For rural districts, allowing students to transfer from other districts helps them increase student populations in areas with few students.
“I think in other [areas] it is to keep their student levels at a point where they can more efficiently operate their programs,” said Casey.
Some opponents of inter-district transfer policies argue the policies jeopardize class rankings of in-district students, which is important in Texas because the top 10% of a graduating class are granted automatic college admission.
CAEE argues that the policies are unfair for taxpayers who have to subsidize the education of students who don't pay into the district.
But some students in Texas do pay tuition. Last year, Collin County’s Lovejoy ISD decided to charge transfer students tuition in response to state budget cuts.
This is allowed under the Texas Education Code unless the student is transferring from a designated, underperforming school.
“The most we would generate would be about a million in a half, so we’ve made cuts and we’ve had enrollment growth, and so the combination of those with tuition could get us back even,” said Lovejoy Superintendent Ted Moore in an interview last year with NPR member station KERA.
But while districts like Lovejoy ISD argue that charging tuition is financially necessary, others think it creates even more inequity in an already unfair system.
UT Professor Dr. Jennifer Holm says that in many states inter-district transfers and other free-choice policies have helped segregate schools.
“It becomes essentially like a private school education in some ways when you’re charging tuition to students, so that’s even a bigger barrier in terms of access under these programs. These programs are not equity-minded,” says Holm.
Eanes ISD’s McWhorter says that the school board reviews the district’s transfer policy regularly. Right now, she says the discount received on recapture exceeds what would be earned by charging tuition, especially because there would likely be fewer transfers if the district charged tuition.
“It’s a budgetary tool for us really," McWhorter says. "The board recognizes it’s a benefit to our district in so many ways. Not just financially, but we’re bringing in really good quality kids. So its definitely a win-win program for the board and for the families that transfer.”
Whether the bond package passes or fails, McWhorter says it will not affect transfer students. The decision to change the transfer policy is made by the Eanes School Board and it has no plans to do so at this time.
These Central TX districts accept out-of-district transfer applications*:
- Hays CISD ($3,715 in annual tuition)
- Dripping Springs ISD accepts students in pre-k or high school; all pre-k students in the district pay tuition, there is no tuition for other transfers
- Del Valle ISD accepts transfers under very limited conditions
- Manor ISD
- Bastrop ISD
- Eanes ISD
*Districts accepting transfers from underperforming schools are prohibited from charging tuition, and all districts accept transfers based on space available and other admission requirements.