Creating one Cameron County school district?

HARLINGEN – If two Senate bills become laws as written now, then Cameron County would end up with one huge county school district.

Several area educators feel that would be a bad idea. That’s why they’re sternly protesting Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr.’s idea to consolidate the nine school districts into one county-wide district.

“We wouldn’t support such a thing,” said Rio Hondo Superintendent Ismael Garcia.

“I’m working with our legal counsel to take a resolution to the school board where we would be opposing such a move,” Garcia said.

Lucio has introduced two bills regarding school funding in the current regular legislative session. Lucio has said one of the consistent issues is properly and equitably funding public schools. He said many districts in the state, especially those in South Texas, have been underfunded for years. He wants to do what he can to remedy that issue.

Senate Bill 2112 seeks to consolidate public school districts into a county-wide entity.

Senate Bill 2113 seeks to conduct a study on the feasibility to reorganize school districts within one entity.

The bills appear to specify Cameron County, stating the “subchapter applies only to a county that contains an international border and borders the Gulf of Mexico.” The goal of the consolidation, Lucio said, would be to make available shared services as well as additional financial resources through an expanded tax base.

Lucio said Tuesday he had intended to push SB 2112 through the legislative process. However, he was not able to speak with all the educators he’d planned to meet.

Because of that, he chose not to move forward with SB 2112. In its place, he submitted SB 2113 seeking the study to determine whether consolidation was a feasible way to reach his goals.

“We need more time to fully discuss this issue with residents, teachers, administrators and students,” Lucio said. “I wouldn’t mind students taking part in our interim study so they could learn what we’re trying to do to further their education.”

He said he spoke with a couple of board members in Brownsville.

“The response from the superintendent was very positive,” Lucio said. “And the response of two Brownsville school board members was also positive in thinking outside the box. I didn’t get a chance to visit with the Harlingen area administrators and the school board. A lot of things came to me in those 90 days before I came up here.”

This “positive” response Lucio talked about Tuesday came as a surprise to Brownsville school district officials.

“That’s news to me,” said Sylvia Atkinson, Brownsville school board member.

“I would definitely not be in support of this type of either one of these two bills,” Atkinson said.

She, like many, had several concerns about the legislation. One of those concerns was that of providing the public with due notice about the bills.

Brownsville School District Superintendent Esperanza Zendejas also pointed out that educators had not been consulted prior to the legislation being submitted.

“We have a lot of needs in Cameron County,” Zendejas said. “I don’t think the bill adequately, as it’s written, addresses how the consolidation is going to impact the resources.”

The reorganization of nine school districts into one county district immediately brought up concerns about autonomy and the loss of jobs.

“This is not just a school issue but one that also has a high potential of having an economic impact on our local community,” said Gerry Fleuriet, president of the Harlingen school board.

“By definition, consolidation implies restructuring, which often includes a decrease in jobs,” she said. “Local tax dollars will be moved to the controlling school district, which at this point, has been identified as Brownsville ISD.”

Local residents have bombarded her and other board members with concerns of this bill, she said. One of those concerns is the removal of local control from parents and communities.

“Central to our community is our school system,” Fleuriet said. “We cannot support any effort to move any of the decision-making authority regarding our HCISD students and school district to another community.”

Lucio said he plans to meet with educators and other residents over the next few years as the bill proceeds through the legislative process. The earliest it could become law is in the year 2020.