LISD gets personal with legislators, delivers priorities

State Sen. Jane Nelson and state representatives Ron Simmons and Tan Parker discuss LISD's needs from the upcoming state legislative session. (Photo by Leopold Knopp)

Near the end of local legislators’ meeting last week with the Lewisville ISD Board of Trustees, State Sen. Jane Nelson (R- Flower Mound), who has been in her position since 1993, reminisced on the history of the STAAR test. Nelson talked about how difficult it is to get students back to reading at grade level if they’ve fallen behind by fifth grade, and outrage at the turn of the century at how many students were behind grade level. Standardized testing began as a way to make sure no child was left behind.

“That was the beginning of what you’re looking at now, and we have strayed so far from what it started out as,” she said.

Nelson, flanked by state representatives Ron Simmons (R- Carrollton) and Tan Parker (R- Flower Mound), agreed with several of the board’s points about how education in Texas needs to change as the board personally delivered its requests for the upcoming 86th legislature to LISD’s representatives Sept. 14.

Nelson represents senate District 12, which covers much of Denton County and some of Tarrant. In the House, Simmons’ District 65 covers the eastern half of the school district with territory dipping into northern Carrollton, while Parker’s District 63 represents the western half and further west into rural Denton County. Lewisville is split between the two of them.

All three are particularly powerful elected officials — Nelson chairs the Senate finance committee, Parker is a candidate to be the next speaker of the Texas House and Simmons introduced the Texas version of the bathroom bill last year, which drew Texas into the national issue.

The LISD trustees took the opportunity to speak directly to elected representatives and present the specific hopes they had for the 86th legislature in a document they’ve been working on since May. The board requested a better curriculum that would allow teachers to cover fewer subjects in more depth, school finance simplification, equal accountability for charter schools and deference to local school officials on more issues.

Board members took turns presenting the four main points. Throughout the conversation, the trustees described the difficulties they had with the STAAR test, the A-F school ranking system and the school finance setup, both philosophically and in the ways they’ve affected LISD specifically. The school district made statewide news in 2016 when it challenged STAAR test grades and found that more than 100 LISD students had been wrongfully failed on their test, which the state relies on heavily for information about how things are going at individual schools.

LISD was recently given an 89 on the statewide rating system despite earning a 90 by their own calculations because, according to the Texas Education Agency’s system, no school district could be given an ‘A’ if a single school within that district was rated as “requiring improvement.”  Out of the entire 63-school district, one school, Central Elementary, was rated as “improvement required.”

Several times, the conversation was personal, with board members and the representatives drawing direct lines from policy decisions to how they affected individual students. Board member Tracy Scott Miller said he was not a good test-taker as a child, and doubted that he would have gone on to a successful career if his education had been dictated by STAAR test scores.

State Rep. Ron Simmons speaks during the Lewisville ISD Board of Trustees’ meeting with state representatives Sept. 14. (Photo by Leopold Knopp)

Board member Kristi Hassett said she’d observed a general sentiment that LISD was against accountability in general. She asked the legislators to help change that conversation.

“We don’t mind tests. We want a better test,” she said. “We don’t mind accountability. We want better accountability.”

Superintendent Kevin Rogers also described the difficulty school districts have in acquiring extra funding from the state. The state sets a maximum tax rate that school districts can levee at $1.17 per $100 of assessed property value. LISD is currently under that cap at $1.04 and has resisted raising taxes for several years, but Rogers said school districts are often refused extra funding from the state if they are not collecting the maximum amount of tax dollars on their own.

“We’re still at $1.04. We try to be good stewards in our community, but for the most part our colleagues are at the max $1.17 M&O,” Rogers said. “It’s sort of a mixed message. Don’t raise taxes, but don’t come asking for help if you’re not at the max.”

Nelson, Parker and Simmons were all sympathetic to LISD’s issues, but said it would be difficult to cause significant movement in Austin.

Nelson described the current school finance system, and in particular the family of laws surrounding state recapture payments, as a patchwork system covered in different “Band-Aids” applied over a period of decades. She said the system no longer functioned properly, but that ripping off some of the individual “Band-Aid” laws could make things worse.

Parker said the 86th legislature would probably spend the majority of its time finding money to help repair the bay area after Hurricane Harvey, something that was part of LISD’s consideration when drafting the requests, but he said that he was committed to seeing “something meaningful” done about school finance in the near future.

“I want you to understand, if it’s not done in the 86th, it will be in the 87th, or in special session,” he said.

“God forbid,” Simmons added at the thought of a special session, drawing laughter.