Fighting 'yellowbelly politicians' to save Texas' public schools: Q&A with Jimmie Don Aycock
Education advocate, former Killeen school board member and former state Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock on property appraisals: “The problem is people don’t seem to get the linkage between cutting state taxes and increasing local property taxes. That’s why I’m traveling all over the state.”
Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte
During his 10 years as a Republican state representative from Central Texas, Killeen veterinarian and rancher Jimmie Don Aycock, 71, gained prominence as a champion of public education. His legacy includes legislation to reduce the amount of testing required, enable academically troubled schools to more readily reform themselves and fix a creaky school finance system that no less than then-Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett described in 2016 as “byzantine.” The latter concern was particularly frustrating for Aycock, who in 2015 crafted a bipartisan House bill to add $3 billion to the budget to more adequately and equitably fund public schools. The bill was withdrawn in the session’s final days because of opposition in the Texas Senate.
In this Trib interview — conducted immediately after a roundtable discussion with community leaders coordinated by the Cooper Foundation on Wednesday — Aycock discussed the state’s behind-the-scenes role in fueling local property values; why more and more educators believe state leaders are hostile to public education; and his involvement with the Texas First Coalition, a nonprofit bringing together education advocates and business leaders “to promote quality public schools, a thriving business climate, fiscal responsibility at all levels of government and stronger ethics for elected officials.” The organization specifically targets “yellowbelly politicians” reducing state funding of schools, “forcing higher taxes on local homeowners to make up the difference.”
Q Local homeowners got their property appraisals this spring and many went through the roof. Some tell us they’ve seen their property values go up 30 to 40 percent. Yesterday at the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce someone erupted about a local school district’s spending money on iPads. Others focus their fire on the local appraisal district. Are those the sole villains or does the state also bear some blame?
A Welcome to my world! [Laughter.] I think there’s enough blame to go around for everybody. What I’ve been pitching to people is the state’s involvement in this process. Let’s have a School Finance 101 session for a minute. Imagine filling up a glass to pay for public schools. Local property taxpayers put money in that glass, the state puts some in and the federal government puts some in, but don’t worry about the federal money because it’s designated money with specific purposes tied to it. The historic background in Texas has been that the state funded about half of public education, local taxpayers funded about half. Yet now we’re down to about a 38-62 split [with local taxpayers paying the 62 percent]. Part of what’s happening is that the state is shifting that load onto local property taxpayers in order to generate the same amount of revenue per student.
Q Isn’t that a de facto state property tax and thus prohibited by state law?
A The last court case [the Texas Supreme Court in 2016] said that while this system was byzantine, it was nonetheless legal. So it’s right on the edge of what’s legal. And the thing I’m talking about around the state is that not only is it byzantine, not only is there a diversion of some property taxes to the state [Chapter 41 of the Texas Education Code mandates certain property-wealthy school districts funnel property-tax money to the state to share with poorer districts], we’re now in a situation where not even all of this revenue [rerouted through the state via the concept of “recapture”] is going into education. There’s some $330 million a year that is going into non-education expenditures being derived from property taxes.
Q You’re saying the state is paying less, but how can they induce property values —
A Well, the state doesn’t induce the property-value change except, of course, it requires by law that local appraisal districts appraise local property on its real market value. And the state has this 5 percent test. If [appraisers] don’t get within 5 percent, plus or minus, of what real market value is, then the district can be penalized for not complying with state law about property values.
Q In Waco, most people are saying, “Well, you told me my house was worth $100,000 last year and now all of a sudden it’s worth $140,000.” That seems to be where most of the protest is.
A Yes, but remember there’s a maximum movement per year [in the taxable amount of that property value] of 10 percent. While a home might be appraised at $100,000 one year and $140,000 the next, it can still only go up to $110,000 on your taxable value. People need to remember that your taxable value and your appraisal value are two different things. Another thing people often don’t understand, especially senior citizens, is that over age 65 your homestead is locked in forever. The appraised value on their home can go up and up, but the taxable dollars for the seniors don’t increase [for school taxes].
Q Around here, the villains are confined to the appraisal district, school boards and maybe home-renovation stars Chip and Joanna Gaines, whose TV show “Fixer Upper” put Waco on the map as an appealing place to visit and live. It’s kind of a tradeoff. Houses are now likely to sell for more here and the benefits of increased tourism help our economy and create jobs. The tradeoff comes on taxable property values going up.
A Well, anything that drives property values certainly has an impact that ripples through the whole community. It just does. Now, it doesn’t affect us here in Central Texas very much, but the oil market drives huge fluctuations because property there has a value in oil, even if that oil is still in the ground. They usually have an estimate of what that pool has in it (in terms of oil) and it’s taxed as part of that property. And as the price of oil goes up and down, you have wild fluctuations in valuations.
Q You said “Welcome to my world” when we began to discuss rising property taxes and declining state funding for public schools and who’s to blame. Do people just not want to know all this? Is it too complex for them?
A Well, it’s very complex. For someone who doesn’t live it or breathe it, it’s difficult to understand.
Q And that makes it easier to manipulate.
A Yes, and it breeds a lot of distrust from the public, especially when they start figuring out, as is happening right now, that not all that recaptured money [from Chapter 41 property-wealthy school districts] going to the state is actually staying in education. Take Plano ISD, which has a large recapture. They basically have to write a check to the state. That’s painful enough. But then they discover it’s not only going to the state instead of the local school district but some of it’s not even going into education!
Q Yet we have state leaders going around the state right now in full campaign mode, blaming local governing entities for runaway spending and high property taxes when they themselves are shorting money to the public schools and manipulating dynamics to increase property values. Sounds like a Texas-styled shell game.
A I call it a circular firing squad. It’s just incredibly complicated and everybody has a different stake in the issue. If you’re a South Texas school district and 99 percent of your students are Spanish speakers, you want the state’s school funding formula to be weighted toward bilingual education. If you’re in Waco Independent School District, you want the funding formula weighted to the education of economically disadvantaged students. If you’re in Austin ISD, you want your recapture rate to be low. Wherever you are in those thousand-plus school districts gives you a different perspective. So they all stand around in a circle and shoot each other.
Q Why, given the priority our state constitution places on public education, is the state gradually reducing its share of funding for public schools? I think its share of public school funding will be 38.1 percent by 2019, down from 45 or 46 percent a decade ago.
A Simple: It’s just very popular to say, “We cut taxes.” But when you cut taxes, something has to be cut and right now that’s health care for teachers, health care for retired school teachers, public school funding and Child Protective Services. And as long as they keep reducing tax revenue from the state, those expenses will simply get shifted to the local taxpayer. One other place you’re seeing this is in higher education. Tuition rates just keep going up and up and up. When I went to vet school [at Texas A&M in the late 1960s], I took a 21-hour load and my total tuition was $50 — and I don’t mean $50 an hour — because the state back then basically paid for higher education. Nowadays most of that money is flowing from the families with less and less from the state.
Q So where is the outcry about all this?
A The outcry right now is that we don’t want to pay any taxes.
Q So where are all the outraged educators?
A Oh, educators are screaming but they don’t vote much. They just generally don’t vote.
Staff photo — Jerry Larson, file
Q That’s wild. I’m not used to that. You know, I’ve talked with state education expert Bonnie Lesley —
A Sure, of Texas Kids Can’t Wait.
Q I’ve asked Bonnie this often. Where are all the teachers?
A Well, the retired teachers vote in significant numbers.
Q Of current teachers, though, she remarked some just vote the way their spouses do, which means they possibly worsen the situation they work under daily. Others, she said, are so busy —
A Right, they’re busy and tired and just don’t get out and vote. For all of us who see ourselves as advocates of public education, it’s very frustrating.
Q It seems to make it harder for local governing entities such as cities and counties to do their jobs, given the fact school property taxes are typically the biggest part of the property tax bill and state officials are now talking about tightening local revenue growth for all of them.
A In the Cooper Foundation roundtable discussion I was just in a few minutes ago, your county judge said if the state keeps requiring this and this and this and then it places a tight revenue cap on the growth of property-tax revenue, the county can’t perform the very services the state itself requires it to perform. That’s already basically happened to the schools. If they go up more than 8 percent, they have to have a rollback election.
Q State legislators during the last legislative session were talking about trying to get the revenue cap to just 4 percent growth [for cities and counties]. And now the governor is talking about 2.5 percent [for cities, counties and school districts, though with a provision that would preclude new unfunded mandates from the state].
A You know, in a district that’s sort of static in population and isn’t experiencing just enormous growth, you could probably live with something like 4 percent. But what do you do with a school district like Frisco ISD that’s gaining thousands of students every year?
Q So our state leaders don’t want to fund education. And they don’t seem to want to provide the apparatus for locals to fund education. Are they just anti-education?
A Some are.
A This is a personal opinion, not based on fact, but I think many state leaders want their kids to go to private schools and simply don’t want to have to fund the public endeavor. Part of it’s racial, part of it’s economic and part of it’s a variety of views. They just want out of the system and don’t really care what happens to everybody else.
Q In other words, they don’t want their taxes going to public education.
A Yeah, and there also are people within the state of Texas who see public schools as somehow agnostic and socialistic.
Q Even though prayer has not been kicked out of public schools, despite this talk-radio myth you keep hearing.
A [Laughter.] They have a prayer around the flagpole every day at nearly every school in Killeen.
Q You were a school board member early in your public service career [1985-88]. What was the biggest revelation about education that you gained after serving in the Texas Legislature and advocating for public schools?
A I compare education issues and government issues in general to a great blob of protoplasm. If you get enough people pushing on one side in one direction, you can move it a little bit. But by and large, if everybody is pushing all around it in different ways, it barely budges at all. Finding out how difficult it is to move policy is just the eye-opener of my life.
Q That makes it sound as if we’re almost ungovernable.
A Partly, but then again partly it’s supposed to be difficult. I think our Founding Fathers anticipated it to be difficult so that only when people get on one side and move in one direction does something really happen. As it is right now, with the country in general and Texas in specific, I think we simply have people pushing in lots of different directions and very little is happening.
Q But when it comes to education funding, it seems a very small minority of people in power are pushing to remove funding from public education, even though the overwhelming majority of our state wants money for public education. Is that a fair characterization?
A They want money for education so long as they don’t have to pay the property taxes. “We won’t tax you, we won’t tax me, we’ll tax the person behind us.”
Q I thought it pretty ironic that one of the Parkland teachers was remarking how all of a sudden people want to spend millions to provide security in schools when a week before the shooting massacre teachers had to buy their own paper.
A Well then, you’ll love this one. The shortfall in the Teacher Retirement System health-care system is about $800 million — about the same amount the state is now spending on border security.
Q So what’s the solution to all this?
A Almost anything you do will take about $3 billion. That’s the number we were talking about several years ago when we were trying to ramp up school funding. That will still leave some flaws in the system.
Q So do you think this will happen with the current regime in charge?
A With Dan Patrick and Greg Abbott? Not a chance.
+2 Families sit in a packed library at South Waco Elementary School for a community discussion on efforts to save local schools from closure if they don’t meet state standards. A partnership between Waco Independent School District and Prosper Waco could manage such campuses.
Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte
Q We have five schools in economically struggling areas of Waco that have fallen short academically through the years and face the possibility of closure by the state. The Waco Independent School District is entering into a partnership with a local, poverty-battling nonprofit called Prosper Waco to run all this as an in-district charter setup. You’ve made reform of failing public schools one of your legislative efforts. Does this deal seem promising, based on what you heard from stakeholders in the roundtable today in Waco?
A Most of the last hour before I came over here was focused on that very topic. The concept they’re discussing stresses wraparound services with health care for students, social advising for students, nutritional services. From what I was hearing, and I encouraged them to do this, they’re also considering strategic staffing where you encourage your best and brightest and hardest-pushing teachers and principals to go to those most difficult campuses. And that’s difficult to do. Why would any teacher leave an easy school to go teach in a hard school? There are incentives that they have got to apply to that. They also need to focus, of course, on recruiting and retaining and training teachers. And they need to continue their emphasis on reading all the way from pre-kindergarten to third grade. If you can get a kid reading at grade-level by third grade, your chances of not having to remediate later in a more difficult environment go way up. Too often the emphasis has just been on pre-K, but it needs to be on pre-K all the way through third grade because till a kid learns to read for meaning, you’re going to have a difficult time educating them. And then I’ve encouraged “step-up” programs where you involve local higher education — in your case probably Baylor University, Texas State Technical College and McLennan Community College. I think the Waco people are on the right track generally. Of course, the legislation was written for charter school involvement. If they allow an in-district charter, that could be convincing.
Q It’s convincing you’re out of the Legislature but not letting go of public education as an issue through this newly formed Texas First Coalition.
A I’m going all over the state talking about revenue possibilities for the state and how at some point we need to have a serious discussion about revenue. Some of that revenue needs to go to public schools, some needs to go to higher education. Public opinion is eventually reflected in public policy, so I’m trying to get people more involved in public education issues so they’ll actually drive public policy.