San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

December 14th, 2010
San Marcos CISD officials respond to FAST ratings


San Marcos CISD Trustees Jesse Ponce, left, and Kathy Hansen, right, at last month’s meeting. Photo by Sean Batura.

News Reporter

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.

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15 thoughts on “San Marcos CISD officials respond to FAST ratings

  1. Why does the District have an acting superintendent while paying an increased rate of pay to the former superintendent to stay on until there is a replacement? Who is making the administrative decisions — Schaeffer or Abild; does anybody know?

  2. It is my understanding that Dr. Patty Shafer must be retired for an entire month before she can be employed by the district. They felt that December would be the best month for her to be absent. Abild is the Acting Superintendent for this month and then Dr. Shafer will return in January.

  3. I’m not as concerned about the spending, as the results. If five star ratings are awarded for composite academic progress ratings between 80 and 99 and spending indexes of “Very Low,” then let’s work toward that 80-99 and then focus on reigning in the spending, if needed. Stating that we are better now than we were a year ago is like saying I only beat my wife on Saturday, when the Bobcats lose, but when this report came out, I was beating her daily.

    Anyone on the admin side, who is claiming (or implying) that we would have come out of this as a shining example for all to follow, had they only used academic ratings one year newer, is misguided at best and a fraud and a thief at worst.

  4. If the current bottom is 1.5 stars and the ceiling is 5 stars, does anyone want to lay any money down, betting on whether we come in next year, between 1.5 and 3, or 3.5 and 5? Starting damn near in the basement and barely achieving a Recognized rating (which looks like it is at risk of slipping), I’m betting that we come in at 3 or below. Of course, by then there will be a different set of excuses.

  5. Ted,
    It is my opinion you are wrong.
    Things are not perfect, but they are moving in the right direction. And will continue to do so. I talk to ‘active, engaged’ parents every single day.
    I have 3 children in the public schools here.

    I’ve read your comments here, and respect your enthusiasm for feedback and response, but I’d say 85% (not scientific) of what you post is negative. How bad things are..;.how the schools are screwed up…how the council has bungled things….

    Let’s work together, relentlessy, until we fix them.

  6. Interestingly, I have had others chastise me for being too inclined to look for the positive and give people the benefit of the doubt.

    I have made MANY comments that the schools are moving forward, but they have a LONG way to go, and there is plenty of scientific data to back that up.

    Your reference to other comments is too vague for me to refute directly, other than to say that I had positive things to say about homebuyer assistance programs, cooperating with the county on road bonds, the Wonder World extension, Grifols, “roadway dieting” for CM Allen, the solar plant, the proposed Windmere development, with connecting roadways, parkland acquisition, the apartments reportedly going in at the site of Rivendell, railroad quiet zones, all sorts of local happenings, Texas State becoming a top Hispanic-Serving Institution, single-stream recycling, the Texas State/San Marcos joint research and commercialization center, the revised Paso Robles plan (provided any TIRZ is handled properly), the potential for Smart Code, if done right, to have a very positive impact on the city, the value of “branding” for the city (assuming it is more than just a logo), commuter rail efforts, the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, etc.

    And don’t forget my countless positive comments about bringing Mike Leach to Texas State.

    All in all, I can count very few things I have been unhappy with. Unfortunately, some of them have been very contentious and very drawn out.

    I will say, having been one of the first that I know of, to try to shut down the “our schools are exemplary, we just have a perception problem” comments from the school board, and having had board members/candidates completely baffled by statistics pulled from the TEA reports that they regularly cite (and even ask where they could get those statistics), I’m a little reluctant to give the board and the administration a pass just yet. Sorry. I’ll cop to the negativity on that one.

  7. As a footnote, I would point out that in June of 2009, Shafer was still on the “perception problem” kick, stating that “it is evident that SMCISD is finally being recognized for the ‘exemplary’ district that it is and has been for a long time.”

    I called BS. Perhaps I was too negative in doing so.

    Either way, less than two months later, we were rated “academically unacceptable,” by the TEA, so I feel a bit vindicated.

    Looking at the latest reports, our Recognized status looks a bit precarious to me and even if we hold onto it, I don’t see scores that would net us more than a 3-star rating. Granted, I know as little about this new rating system as anyone else.

  8. I am all for a positive mental attitude as well as optimism for the future but let’s not fool ourselves – there’s plenty of room for improvement.

    It is reasonable to expect HONESTY from our school district – no spin, no “talking points”, no “perception problems”, no excuses, just honesty – tell the whole story.

    For example, a slogan for the district used to be: “We are good and gettin’ better” – well some folks had issues with the claim “we are good” when looking at the actual results which were not so good. The truth would have been more accurately: “We are below average but trying to get better.”

    The district web site and signage proudly proclaims SMCISD as “A Texas Education Agency RECOGNIZED School District” – true, but the rest of the story is 55% of all districts in Texas are “Recognized” and another 19% of districts are “Exemplary” (the highest rating available by TEA). So, actually we are average or probably even below average based on TEA ratings.

    The San Marcos High School web page proudly proclaims “SMHS is one of ‘America’s Best High Schools’ — Newsweek”. True – based on 2009 data San Marcos High School was #1442 out of about 1600 schools ranked by Newsweek magazine. The ranking is determined by the total number of AP exams divided by the number of graduating seniors. There is plenty of controversy about the Newsweek methodology – see the Newsweek website for details. Our highest placement on the list was in 2009 (based on 2008 data) with a 29th percentile – meaning that 71% of list was ranked higher than SMHS. Ironically, our lowest placement was in 2010 (based on 2009 data) with an 11th percentile, i.e. 89% of the list ranked higher than SMHS. Students at the #1 school on the list took 12 TIMES MORE AP tests per student than SMHS students.

    Let’s be honest here — is the 1.5 star FAST rating really a surprise to anyone?

  9. I guess according to this logic, then, all negative news about the schools is “accurate” and “to be expected”, and all positive news is “spun”.

    There’s always a “whole story” with any news. I look at progress, and in my opinion, SMISD seems to be making forward progress, despite many of the demographic obstacles other districts do not have.

    I guess it just depends on how you look at life.

  10. gman, there are many districts with the same “demographic obstacles” (some of the board and admin prefer to call them “subgroups”) as us, and those districts perform at the highest level. I have cited them elsewhere, offering what I believed to be constructive advice about districts we might emulate and/or work with.

    There has been progress. I have said that countless times. We have only taken a few small steps in the right direction and we still have a long journey ahead. It is all in how you look at it and unfortunately, Shafer and the board have rarely looked at it objectively.

  11. Updated from the 2010 report:

    Navarro – 3.5 stars 41% Hispanic students, 39% economically disadvantaged and graduated 97% and 93%, respectively for the class of 2009 (a HUGE improvement). They also pay their superintendent about 33% less than we do.

    Bangs ISD – 3.5 stars 54% economically disadvantaged students. They graduated 80% of their Hispanic students and 88% of their economically disadvantaged students. They also pay their superintendent a little more than half what we pay.

    Los Fresnos ISD – 4.5 stars 95% Hispanic. 80% economically disadvantaged. They graduated 82% of their Hispanic students and 85% of their economically disadvantaged students.

    Fabens ISD – 3.5 stars 98% Hispanic. 93% economically disadvantaged. Graduated 88% and 89%, respectively.
    It seems that these districts hold up, regardless of the measure.

    San Marcos ISD – 1.5 stars 70% Hispanic. 69% economically disadvantaged. Graduated 68% and 76%. How does that keep us from slipping back to Academically Unacceptable? I suspect it is because the number listed as “continuing” (as opposed to dropping out) shot up to 25.5%, from 12.5% and we must get some sort of credit for that. Dropouts went from 17% to 5%. It is not hard to imagine a little smoke and mirrors here. If those kids aren’t really “continuing,” we run the very real risk of slipping back a notch or two.

    Hays – 3 stars

    Wimberley – 4 stars

    Dripping Springs – 5 stars

    New Braunfels – 3 stars

  12. I am asking for the truth from SMCISD. Then it is up to us to determine if we are happy with the truth.

    Ted has done a good job of researching the facts of not only our school district but others in Texas. Obviously Ted expects better from SMCISD.

    I believe there are many in San Marcos who are quite content with SMCISD just the way it is even in light of the Comptroller’s FAST report, the TEA’s accountability ratings and the federal report of adequate yearly progress (AYP).

  13. No one wants to talk about the elephant in the room – the fact that San Marcos has had a weak superintendent the last several years, coupled with a weak curriculum staff.
    They have been writing checks for outside consultants to do the job they should be doing. The payout alone for the consultants is well over a million dollars. Yes, one million dollars!
    One of the consultants is not even education related –she is a new age “life coach” for the superintendent and administrators – this life coach (Ocotillo Consulting out of San Antonio) was paid over $100,000.00 last year alone. However, the district cannot afford to hire extra tutors for the classroom or provide supplies for the teachers? !
    The staff knows all of this information – just ask them. The board members need to get busy and find out what is really happening in the district before they hire the next superintendent!

  14. On a loosely related education note, some Hays County residents are now up in arms, having JUST found out that the ACC annexation for HCISD comes with increased property tax bill. Lawsuit filed.

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