San Marcos CISD Trustees Jesse Ponce, left, and Kathy Hansen, right, at last month’s meeting. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
A report requested by the Texas Legislature in 2009 and released last week by Texas Comptroller Susan Combs indicates that San Marcos CISD taxpayers pay more for less compared to residents in most similar districts.
The comptroller’s report, called “Connecting the Dots: School Spending and Student Progress,” used the new Financial Allocation Study for Texas (FAST) methodology to award school districts from one to five stars based on their performances during a three-year time span. Districts were rated in relation to others of similar sizes, demographics, and cost environments.
San Marcos CISD received 1.5 out of five stars, which reflects the comptroller’s determination that the district demonstrated low academic progress and high spending compared to peer districts over a three-year average.
San Marcos CISD officials noted that the comptroller’s report does not take into account statewide data from the 2009-2010 school year, for which San Marcos CISD was awarded an accountability rating of “Recognized” by the Texas Education Agency (TEA). The TEA gave San Marcos CISD an “Academically Unacceptable” rating due to the district’s 2007-2008 high school completion rate.
The TEA standard for completion rate is that 75 percent of students overall and for each subcategory must graduate within four years of entering high school. Though the graduating class of 2008 across San Marcos CISD had a completion rate of 85.1 percent, economically disadvantaged students graduated at a rate of 74.5 percent, one-half of a percent short (a real difference of one student) of enabling the school district to maintain its academically acceptable rating from the TEA listings a year earlier.
Comptroller spokesperson R.J. DeSilva said the comptroller’s office will begin incorporating new data from the 2009-2010 school year in the spring to generate an updated report. DeSilva said the data was not available soon enough to include in the current report.
The comptroller’s report makes it a point to avoid stating whether some taxpayers pay too much for their district’s services.
“The ratings do not judge the relative value of spending versus academic progress,” Combs said. “Different schools have different priorities and constraints.”
San Marcos CISD Trustees President Kathy Hansen said she is not yet familiar with the FAST methodology, and said trustees will discuss the matter and learn more about Combs’ report at their meeting next month.
“It’s a new way of rating districts … it doesn’t seem to make sense, what with problems several other districts are having that we’re not having,” Hansen said. “We actually reduced the tax rate and gave all staff members a pay raise (this budget year). So, I’m not exactly sure how it all ties together. It will be interesting to see how it does, and what we can do to make improvements.”
DeSilva said a district that can afford to give pay increases without raising taxes may still receive a low FAST rating if its academics lag behind peer districts, among other factors.
Having a savings rate that dwarfs its 40 peer districts did not appear to improve San Marcos CISD’s FAST score.
The comptroller’s report puts San Marcos CISD’s fund balance at 260.7 percent of the state-designated optimum funding level. The peer district with the next-highest savings rate has a fund balance of 169.7 percent of the optimum. Fourteen of San Marcos CISD’s 40 peer districts have fund balances from 100 to 121.2 percent of the optimum. Six of the 40 peer districts have fund balances from 121.2 percent to 150.2 percent of the optimum, and 19 have fund balances less than 100 percent of the optimum.
“As far as I can determine, a district’s fund balance is not taken into account in preparation of that efficiency report,” said San Marcos CISD Acting Superintendent Mike Abild.
According to the Texas Education Agency (TEA), the optimum fund balance is calculated by computing the optimum unreserved, undesignated fund balance equal to the estimated amount to cover cash flow deficits in a district’s general fund for the fall period in the following fiscal year, plus estimated average monthly cash disbursements of the general fund for the nine months following the fiscal year.
The comptroller’s report drew upon data from the TEA and the Texas Schools Project of the University of Texas-Dallas, and the expertise of UT-Dallas, University of Texas, Texas A&M and other Texas educators to create the FAST methodology. The FAST methodology was reviewed by multiple in-state and out-of-state experts to validate its methods and findings, according to the comptroller’s office.
“The study itself is extremely complicated, complex, comprehensive, and the school district is still studying it, trying to completely understand it,” Abild said. “It’s a great big project.”
Districts with FAST ratings of five stars are those with composite academic progress ratings between 80 and 99 and spending indexes of “Very Low.” San Marcos received a composite academic progress rating of 13 and a spending index of “High.”
Only 43 of the 1,235 school districts and charter schools analyzed in the comptroller’s report received a five-star FAST rating, according to the comptroller’s office.
Of the school districts and charter schools in Hays County besides San Marcos CISD, Dripping Springs ISD received a five-star FAST rating, Wimberley ISD received four stars, Hays CISD garnered three stars, the Texas Preparatory School received 2.5 stars, and the Katherine Anne Porter School received two stars.
The comptroller’s report scored each school district based on its relation to as many as 40 peer districts. Charter operators are considered school districts for the purposes of the report.
Peer districts are those found to operate in similar cost environments, based on factors that affect the cost of providing education, such as regional wages, district size and student characteristics.
After the comptroller’s FAST research team identified peer districts, it assigned each district a “spending index” based on spending relative to peers. In creating the spending index, the FAST team compared district core operating expenditures per pupil, adjusted for geographic wage variations. According to the report, a district’s spending index is determined by identifying the spending quintile in which it falls relative to its fiscal peers. The quintiles range from “Very Low” to “Very High.”
The FAST research team developed the composite academic progress ratings by combining each district’s math and reading academic progress measures. The comptroller’s report displays academic progress measures in percentiles ranging from one to 99, with 99 representing the most academic progress relative to other districts in the state, averaged for three years.
According to the comptroller’s report, San Marcos CISD showed as much or more progress on reading-based standardized tests than eight percent of districts and charter schools statewide during the three-year period under study. San Marcos CISD showed as much or more progress on math standardized tests than 31 percent of districts and charter schools statewide during the three years.
Of San Marcos CISD’s 40 peer districts, five received a composite academic progress rating lower than San Marcos CISD, and 21 peer districts received scores lower than 50. Four of the 40 peer districts received composite progress scores in the 90s, three received scores in the 80s. Three of the peer districts have composite academic scores in the 70s, seven in the 60s, and four in the 50s.
Six San Marcos CISD’s 40 peer districts received “Very Low” spending indexes, nine were awarded indexes of “Low,” and six received “High” spending indexes. Two districts received spending indexes of “Very High.” Districts that received a spending indexes of “Average” numbered 17.
San Marcos CISD’s cost adjusted spending per pupil was $7,535 during the three years, according to the study.
Cost adjusted spending per student was between $6,317 and $7,933 for 28 of San Marcos CISD’s peer districts over three years. Cost adjusted spending per pupil for two of the 40 peer districts was less than $6,317. Cost adjusted spending per pupil for the remaining 10 districts was more than $7,933, including Deer Park ISD, which had the highest spending per pupil at $9,629.
Five of 40 peer districts had higher dropout rates than San Marcos CISD, which the report put at 14.1 percent. Three of the peer districts had dropout rates of zero percent. Of the 40 districts, 27 had dropout rates less than 10 percent.
Included in San Marcos CISD’s peer districts were Community ISD in the northwest portion of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex and Southside ISD on the south side of San Antonio. Community ISD, at $5,383, had the lowest cost adjusted spending per pupil and a dropout rate of 7.9 percent. Southside ISD, at 22.6 percent, had the highest dropout rate. The report put Southside ISD’s cost adjusted spending per pupil at $7,453.
Among the school districts in or near the Austin or San Antonio metropolitan areas that are considered San Marcos CISD peers are Florence ISD, Georgetown ISD, Jarrell ISD, Killeen ISD, La Vernia ISD, Leander ISD, Lockhart ISD and Southside ISD.
Abild expressed pleasure with the report’s section on “best practices” for school districts, and with the report’s 20 suggestions for achieving more financial efficiency.
“Without looking at it (the comptroller’s study), I’m sure it will give us areas of where we’ll need to improve,” Hansen said.
Abild will make a presentation about the comptroller’s report to trustees at their next meeting, which is scheduled for Jan. 24. Like all such meetings, it will be open the public, which is invited to offer comments on any matter related to schools.Email | Print