District Of Innovation Could End Up Leaving FBISD Stakeholders Even More Divided. But What Else Can They Do?

Brady Chandler 
Public Affairs Reporter 
The Southside Light 
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Flour Bluff—At a meeting this coming Thursday, the Flour Bluff ISD Board of Trustees will hold a public meeting about the state’s “District of Innovation” that was passed back in 2015 which gives more local control to school districts and allows them to become more competitive with non-traditional private and charter schools around the state. As Flour Bluff ISD works to compete for students and funding, it is obvious that this day would eventually come. 

In essence, the designation is truly nothing more than an exemption making too that districts can use to remain competitive. However, experts warn that while it does give local districts greater control, it also creates an avenue for greater mismanagement of districts. 

“It must be used with caution, skill and very close monitoring,” said Bruce Schroeder a public education advocate in Houston. “There is oftentimes more to the story.” 

But what exactly is the “more” when it comes to the story? Since the news was released at a Board of Trustees meeting this past Thursday, the Southside Light began looking into exactly why the district would want to make such a move and why now? The answer is money. 

Flour Bluff ISD just hired Dr. David Freeman who came from nearby London ISD. It’s obvious that from talking to parents and stakeholders within the south side district that Dr. Freeman is a forward thinker who is capable of doing great things if the Board of Trustees works with him and trusts him and his decision making skills. Dr. Freeman was recruited by the highly skilled and independent interim Joe Kelly, who seemed to do a fairly good job at keeping the board in nominal check. 

Though it isn’t certain whose idea it was to bring the District of Innovation discussion to the table, it was likely a wise decision. While things are looking good for public education in Texas at the moment, the likelihood that taxpayers will be forced to eventually cough up more money by 2021 is a real possibility. Mechanisms designed by state lawmakers to keep the state paying for ongoing property tax relief could put schools at greater risk for budget cuts in years of economic hardship. It’s that forward thinking that has caused over 850 of the state’s 1,032 school districts to jump on board with the plan that does help them find ways of creating more revenue. 

“It’s not a smoke and mirrors game at all,” says Donald Davidson who serves as a legislative consultant in Austin. “It is a way for school districts to protect their budgets for if and when the state’s well intentioned plan falls through.” 

Davidson maintains that this is how the Flour Bluff School Board is going to have to sell it come Thursday. 

“No doubt it opens a Pandora’s Box for mismanagement and gives a ton of control to the board of Trustees,” says Davidson. “But boils down to board competency and trust.” 

Davidson says that when the board meets later in the month, stakeholders can likely expect one of two things to happen. He says that most larger districts who have opted for the “District of Innovation” status have usually asked voters to approve a bond or they have imposed a tax rate hike and its likely that neither one will set well with Flour Bluff voters. 

“You see plenty of bait and switch tactics this time of year,” says Mark Foster, a public sector budget analyst with KPMG. “Sadly, you see distraction games when public entities announce their budgets and that might or might not be what this is but you’ll just wait and see.” 

While there has been no formal indication of either a tax hike or a voter approved bond from the Flour Bluff ISD Board of Trustees, elections analysts and strategists seem to agree that now is the time to pitch an unpopular idea like a bond issue. 

“It’s an off election year and that is when you sneak it in,” says Garrett Brown, a municipal strategist who has helped push through numerous items that require voter approval around Texas. “If your last bond passed by narrow margins then you certainly need to push it through on an off year cycle.” 

And that is exactly what happened in 2013. The voters approved a bond package worth $48 million dollars. However, that bond only passed by a margin of 18%, which boils down to less than 100 total votes. With a powerful political action committee out on the Island and a feeling from almost anybody you ask out that way that Board of Trustees President Shirley Thornton has been increasing tensions between Flour Bluff and Island residents during her tenure, it’s very unlikely that her and the board could get enough support from voters at the polls. What would be even more bitter for taxpayers would be a slipped in tax rate hike. But what else can the current Board of Trustees do? 

They can opt to try and raise money through the District of Innovation exemptions. 

Under House Bill 1842 from the 84th legislative session in 2015, former State Representative Jimmie Don Aycock designed a bill to help both inner city schools and deeply rural districts. Since then, districts of every shape and size have latched onto the exemption finder. In short, school district under this exemption finding tool can identify certain mechanisms in curriculum, instruction, governance, parent or community involvement, school calendar, budgeting, or other ideas. Once they do this, the district must do a nonbinding plan that allows a school district to gain exemption from most of the Texas Education Code requirements.

Items that districts often exempt themselves from are: 

-School start date requirements 

-Class size and student/teacher ratio increases (they would also not be forced to notify parents of those increases) 

-Teacher certification

-Teacher benefits, including state minimum salary schedule, duty-free lunch, and planning periods. 

-Teacher contracts

-Vendor Contract Bidding Processes 

But then in there lies the question of what happens to teachers and what impact might they see from such a designation? To quote the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) 

Possibly none. But depending on the choices a district includes in its local innovation plan, an innovation plan could provide for substantial changes to key employment policies related to employment contracts and benefits of employment. Districts of innovation transitioning to plans that include changes to employment practices should work with their school attorneys to honor existing contracts.” 

But is that word “possibly” a risk that teachers are willing to take? It hasn’t been a popular gamble and teachers associations and organizations around Texas say that it is a threat that no educator in Texas should have to face. 

However, it’s been clear through recent discussions, that the current board (or at least it’s president) wants to bring Flour Bluff Students back to a day where things like shop classes and commonly taught trades were taught in the local school and not at community colleges such as Del Mar or Texas State Technical College. That does not sound bad and most would agree that it is a good train of thought to bring back those programs. However, the catch is that it costs money and with the school district losing grant funding for the University Placement program that infuriated many, the district is struggling to find a suitable replacement program that would appease voters both in the Bluff and out on the Island and the only way that they can do that is to generate more stable revenue and they will likely have to get innovative to figure that out—and in hindsight that is exactly what a District of innovation does—but it is the hidden costs that rightfully has everyone in a buzz. 

The school board will hold a special meeting at the FBISD Administration building on August 1, 2019 at 6pm. 

Matt Briscoe contributed to this report. 

For more information on data sources contained in this story, please visit the following links. You may copy and paste into your browser if the link does not work on your device. 

-Actual bill as passed on engrossing in 2015 during the 84th legislative session. 

-Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) explainimation 

-Public Education op-Ed Texas Tribune