Sen. Schwertner optimistic about legislative session

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

The 86th Texas Legislative Session is one District 5 State Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, is poised to see a lot of progress thanks to a combination of available funds and a desire of those at the Capitol to make progress on some longstanding issues.

There are two primary areas he believes progress can be made between now and the end of May.

“I think we need to address the two biggest issues that face the Legislature this session and those are obviously our schools – school finance and teacher pay – as well as property tax,” Schwertner said. “Those are the issues that have been percolating over many sessions and always come up, but there’s kind of been a confluence of leadership and realization by members and the public that these two issues need to be addressed.”

School funding has a variety of moving parts that Schwertner said need attention, but teacher pay is the topic most discussed. Senate Bill 3, which calls for a $5,000 raise for all teachers in Texas at a projected cost of $3.7 billion, calls for the funds to be directed to the teachers with no other potential uses.

“The issue is if we just increase the basic allotment, that money would just go to the ISD and the school board would be able to raise teacher pay or not,” Schwertner said. “To me, if you aren’t going to give it to the teachers, what are you going to use it for? I think the most important aspect of schools is where the rubber hits the road and that’s with the teachers in the classroom.”

The funds potentially being pledged through Senate Bill 3 are not expected to come with other requirements or stipulations for teachers, but creating a merit or incentive pay plan is something Schwertner supports.

“Good teachers are paid far too little and quite frankly bad teachers are paid far too much,” he said. “We need to try to incentivize merit and excellence in teaching by shifting some from just a tenure-based system toward one that does have some capacity to reward teachers more so for the current system than merit.”

Creating a merit system could help keep better teachers who may opt for other careers due to lower pay.

“I think there are some novel ideas on how to do it,” Schwertner said. “I’m not an education expert, but you just think about it, you really do want to incentivize the best teachers and keep them in the profession. We don’t want to be losing great teachers because they can’t afford to feed their family because they’ve only been in the teaching profession one, two or three years.”

The balance of responsibility for school funding, between the state and local taxpayers, is also something Schwertner wants to see adjusted.

The state kicks in the basic allotment toward each student – $5,140 – which is supplemented by local revenue. The state’s current share, according to Schwertner, is about 36 percent, which has declined over where it was a number of years ago. He said getting that number up near 40 percent should be the goal.

“Regarding school funding and finance, we need to uphold our Constitutional duty to provide for a public free education and one that meets these goals of equitable as well as adequate funding,” he said. “When it gets down to it, I think we need to make sure that funding gets driven down into the classroom. I would like to see money the state puts in driven toward teacher pay.

“I think the state does need to step up and appropriate more money and kind of re-equalize the differences in how much is property tax revenue driven at the local level to support schools and how much is kicked in by the state,” he said.

Schwertner supports the new A-F accountability system currently in place for school districts saying it is an easy to understand system for parents.

“We need accountability in our school system to make sure we’re educating our future generations,” he said. “I think graduation rates and test scores are something to create accountability to make sure when Linda and I send our children to Liberty Hill ISD that our schools are functioning to educate them appropriately to be college or career ready.”

Because the state finds itself with more available funds, property tax relief is something else that could come in this session. That relief can manifest itself in a number of ways.

“One is the appraisal process,” Schwertner said. “When I talk to constituents across the district, they are irritated and concerned about the appraisal process. I think there needs to be effort at increasing transparency and accountability and consistency at the appraisal district for fairness really.”

A second type of relief is an adjustment on how much an entity can raise taxes before a rollback election is triggered.

“Right now we have a tax rate that you can increase up to eight percent before you have to do a rollback election at the county and municipal level,” Schwertner said. “There’s a vigorous discussion, as there was last session, regarding whether or not that rate needs to be lowered.”

He likes this approach because it maintains the option of increasing taxes at a higher rate, but still requires voter support.

“Lowering the rollback rate doesn’t change the ability for cities and counties to tax at that level, but above a certain amount they would have to go to the voters and get the ultimate say from the taxpayers,” he said. “I think it is kind of truth in taxation and fairness on behalf of taxpayers.”

Mental health is an issue local leaders with Williamson County and in school districts have been pressing for action on, and Schwertner said he has and will continue to support increases in programs and funding.

“I’ve worked very closely with the County Commissioners, Cynthia Long and Valerie Covey and others, over the years on finance and appropriations to make sure that we have mental health services that help individuals with mental health illness out of our emergency rooms and out of our jails and help them get the care they need at the right place by the right person at the right time,” he said.

The increase in school shootings, and the close-to-home incident in Santa Fe, Texas, last year has ensured the issue is a focus for everyone.

“Because of the Santa Fe tragedy, there’s been increased focus on the need for mental health services in schools,” he said. “We have counselors but a lot of counselors are doing curriculum development and there’s discussion about how to recognize a child that needs help at an earlier stage far before they get a loaded gun and take it to school. There’s a need for counselors who potentially focus on the wellness of the child and not necessarily on curriculum development at the school.”

There is money planned in the budget for school safety initiatives, Schwertner said.

“This issue of school safety is an emergency item the Governor laid out his emergency items, and I believe there is a willingness to implement and try some of these new strategies to facilitate mental health services in our schools.”

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