Cleveland chamber entreats state leaders to work on property tax reform, school finance

Greater Cleveland Chamber of Commerce members pose for a photo on the House floor during a visit to the state capitol in Austin on Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019. Not pictured is Bluebonnet News publisher Vanesa Brashier.

By Vanesa Brashier, editor@bluebonnetnews.com

Cleveland, Texas, was in the spotlight at the State Capitol in Austin on Wednesday, Feb. 20, as guests with the Greater Cleveland Chamber of Commerce visited with legislators and shared their concerns on matters important to the community.

With Cleveland experiencing unprecedented growth in the housing market and school enrollment, those topics were among the discussions with State Senator Robert Nichols (Senate District 3) and State Rep. Ernest Bailes (House District 18).

The chamber presented members of the education committees for the House and Senate with chamber-sponsored resolutions requesting relief for property tax owners regarding school finance.

“I think they realize that people are really concerned about the way Texas is funding education. It is not working,” said Chamber CEO Jim Carson.

Though he could not guarantee any relief for property taxpayers as the 86th State Legislature was only five weeks into the 20-week session, Nichols said school finance is among four top concerns for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

“The lieutenant governor has declared four priorities. He said we are going to pay teachers more money, fix school funding, do some things for school safety because of shootings and do some things to keep property taxes from increasing faster,” Nichols said. “There will be different approaches to those from the House and the Senate, and the media will try to portray those differences as a feud, but it’s not. It’s just different ideas. The members of the House and Senate get along great.”

In meeting with Rep. Bailes, chamber members were educated on charter schools and how they could negatively impact rural school districts.

“They are not a bad thing in general but they are negative for our district. If you look at Cleveland ISD, you have the school here and then a charter school moves in across the street from them. The charter school gets school funding from the state just like the ISD but they aren’t responsible for transportation and don’t have to deal with behavior issues the same way,” Bailes said. “If you would like to see the public school system fail, that is a great way to accomplish it.”

Bailes acknowledged his concerns about the growth that is impacting Cleveland ISD – an additional 1,000 students added in the 2018-2019 school year thus far. While the flow of people moving into the area cannot be stopped, Bailes said he attempted to put building restrictions in the area that is outside the extra-territorial jurisdiction of Plum Grove. These communities are almost entirely made up of Hispanic people, which has challenged the school district in finding teachers for its English Language Learner and English as a Second Language classrooms.

“As we put the building restrictions in place in the committee in the House, we were told by the chairman that we couldn’t do that. We worked all the way through the process. We got it out of the House and on to the Senate,” Bailes said. “We were contacted the next day and told we couldn’t do it. We can’t regulate land outside an ETJ.”

In explaining what he was trying to accomplish, Bailes said two agreements happened – prior to the issuance of any bonds, one tract of land in the development would have to be conveyed to the county for a first responders complex because of the extra strain on resources and another tract to the school district for the purpose of additional campuses.

“We also changed the makeup of the board of directors for the special district. Typically the developer gets to say who is going to be on these boards but the recommendations we had were people who were not even from Liberty County. We changed that,” Bailes said.

The trip to Austin was organized by Bailes’ office and underwritten by Cleveland EDC and Entergy. AT&T sponsored a lunch from Chick-Fila.

Carson said he plans to follow-up in letters to Nichols and Bailes to continue pushing for agendas that are positive for the Cleveland area.

“I think the trip was successful. I think people learned a lot. I know I did. I learned stuff I didn’t know before, particularly how the charter school system works,” Carson said, adding that the feedback he received from chamber members was positive.

DID YOU KNOW?

The Texas legislature meets every two years on odd-numbered years, spending 140 days deciding on matters that are important to Texans. During the first 60 days, bills cannot be passed from the House to the Senate, or vice versa. The only exception is a local bill.

There are 150 members of the Texas House and 31 members of the Texas Senate. The Speaker of the House this session is Rep. Dennis Bonnen. The lieutenant governor is elected to a four-year term by state voters and presides over the Senate. Currently, that office is held by Dan Patrick.

Senate District 3 includes 19 counties, from Conroe, Lake Conroe, Willis and Montgomery on the west side, the ports of Orange and Beaumont on the east side (skipping the city of Beaumont), to the Louisiana line at Shelby County, then west again to Henderson County.

Senate District 3 represents 110 cities and 101 school districts, most of them rural. Ten percent of all the school districts in the state are in Senate District 3.

House District 18, which includes Liberty, San Jacinto and Walker counties, has an equal number of prisons and school districts – 11. There are nine prisons, two state jails and one diagnostic unit and 11 public school districts.

Texas is the largest energy producer in the United States.

“If Texas was a country, we have surpassed Russia as far as what our total production is in this state,” said Bailes. “We have a very strong economy in Texas, in part to a very vibrant oil and gas industry.”

Sources for “Did you know?”: State Senator Robert Nichols and State Rep. Ernest Bailes

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