PAISD officials look to tax increase to boost budget

PAISD officials look to tax increase to boost budget

Despite pulling one of the top property tax allotment checks in all of Jefferson County, on top of federal and state funding, as well as millions of dollars in annual funding from industrial agreements to keep billion-dollar properties off the tax rolls, Port Arthur ISD has found itself in routine need of additional funds from its tax base. 

In 2007, Port Arthur ISD needed more money from taxpayers to the tune of a $189 million bond initiative. It got it. Then, Port Arthur ISD needed more money to build anew and refurbish what was left in 2015 at a price tag of $195 million in borrowed bond money. It got it.

Now, Port Arthur ISD wants more money to maintain what it has in the form of a tax increase passed on to a largely economically-challenged voter base and many community members, as well as at least one Board of Trustees member, have decided enough is enough.

Voters will make the ultimate decision, however, Aug. 5, in a Tax Ratification Election (TRE). Early voting is currently underway through Aug. 1.

The added tax would raise nearly $5 million in annual funding to “pursue salary increases,” “restore” preventative maintenance at the district’s multi-million-dollar facilities, restore the district’s reading program by hiring reading coaches, and hire more bilingual teachers and employees, according to PAISD literature in favor of the added tax.

Supporters of the tax increase point out that the 13-cent per $100 valuation increase in property tax is negligible as most properties in the district would be taxed at less than an additional $100 a year, but the combined tally would not only generate $4.6 million from direct property tax revenue, it would also spark another $1 million in state aid, as well.

Opposition to additional taxation say property owners of PAISD already pay enough for the services to be provided by the community’s school district. PAISD possessed the third highest property tax levy in 2016 for all of Jefferson County, according to the Jefferson County Tax Assessor’s Office, following only the county itself and Beaumont ISD. With a levy of more than $60 million, PAISD brings in a higher tax levy than the city of Beaumont, and the Port Neches- Groves and Nederland ISDs combined.

Beaumont and Sabine Pass ISDs, as well as all the city and special services districts, were taxing at a rate lower than PAISD in 2016, records from the Tax Assessor’s Office indicate. The only Jefferson County taxing entities with higher tax rates in 2016 were Port Neches-Groves, Hardin-Jefferson and Hamshire-Fannett ISDs.

But as state mandates come in and students (and their corresponding state funding) leave, PAISD finds itself in the same boat as many of Texas’ school districts – inching closer to budgets that exceed revenues.

Added to special revenue and funding sources, state aid and fee income, PAISD is working with a roughly $102 million budget. To make the funds go as far as possible in the 2016-17 budget, several million was shaved off the proposed budget from what was actually spent in 2015-16. PAISD proposed a cut of $3 million in instruction costs alone.

Still, according to Assistant Superintendent for Business and Finance Phyllis Geans, the Port Arthur Independent School District is having to cut even deeper into services and employees to make ends meet with less funding in the face of more impending unfunded mandates. The way the climate of state education funding is going, “We’re forced to increase taxes just to survive,” Geans said. 

But the voters would have to approve any tax increase, and that is no sure thing.

With an election coming up in August, district officials are hopeful the democratic process will yield additional funding at the close of the polls. However, Geans said the proposed PAISD budget is being created for the less favorable outcome, as the district sees it.

Although the per pupil amount proposed to be paid for actual instruction would diminish if the currently pending budget is adopted, spending is increased for “leadership” positions at the campus and district level. Also on the chopping block are social work services – reduced nearly $300,000 in the budget – to less than a quarter of its prior-year funding. And extracurricular and co-curricular activity funding will take a dip, roughly 10 percent, according to the budget summary on the table.

Board of Trustees member Joseph Guillory said he doesn’t want the students to suffer from not having enough teachers or books or seats or programs, but he also doesn’t understand why the district is spending money on things less necessary than those things if PAISD really is in a budget crunch.

“We’re building a new school with bond money at $17million that wasn’t even part of the bond,” Guillory emphasized, referring to the construction of The New Dowling Elementary Project, awarded to SETEX Construction to build for $17.375 million this month with funds from the district’s 2015 bond money.

“I’m just not sure they’re being good stewards with taxpayer money,” he said. “That wasn’t even part of the plan – and if they had that money left over from the bond proceeds, it should have gone back to the taxpayers, not into other projects.”

And Guillory critiqued other pending bond developments as well, such as the $30 million ninth grade campus currently in the construction phase. According to Guillory and educators at the Memorial High School campus for the 10-12 grade students, there was already enough room for the ninth graders at the regular high school campus. The Memorial High School main campus is relatively new, built with proceeds from the district’s 2007 bond referendum, and was said at the time to be able to accommodate more than 2,000 students. Additional rooms were also added to the campus, according to high school staff, that allowed for roughly 300 more students to be accommodated comfortably.

According to PAISD data submitted to the Texas Education Agency, the 10th-12th grade Memorial High campus has 1,487 students. The ninth grade campus has 608 students.

“I just think we could do better,” Guillory said. “Giving more money to a problem is not always the answer.”