The House Appropriations Committee met Monday to hear additional testimony on topics which had been briefed by Legislative Budget Board staff last week. At this meeting, agency officials and staff from the Texas Education Agency and the Teacher Retirement System discussed budget issues regarding school safety (addressed by Commissioner Mike Morath), school finance (TEA Chief School Finance Officer Leo Lopez) and retirement and health insurance (TRS Executive Director Brian Guthrie).

Morath reviewed recommendations from the Governor’s school safety report and from the House and Senate education committees regarding both school hardening and preventive measures. He stressed the importance of positive relationships in the school system, and of increased communications between school staff who are aware of potential warning signs or traumatic events in a child’s life. He referenced the Secret Service’s threat assessment protocol, discussed in this report, which emphasizes how adults can recognize signs of potential mental health and learn how to access mental health professionals. Morath said the ultimate solutions are “intelligence based,” and there is a need to emphasize those types of solutions.

Lopez reviewed the basics of Texas’ school finance system, making clear that many aspects of it — such as the “Cost of Education Index” designed to account for regional variations in the prices of goods and services — are outdated. Today’s school districts are still assigned the same CEI that they were given in 1990. One committee member, Rep. Donna Howard, asked about the possible impact of the governor’s proposal to cap property tax increases at 2.5 percent. Such a proposal would likely require additional state funding to mitigate the limited growth in local tax collections, and Howard pointed out that recent history indicates that the state could not necessarily be relied on to uphold its end of the bargain.

Finally, Guthrie reviewed the several topics of interest under the auspices of TRS — the pension fund and the need for additional revenues if a retiree benefit increase is to be provided in the near future; the need to shore up TRS-Care, and the costly impact of recent changes to the retiree health plan; and the increasing lack of affordability of active employee health insurance. These issues will undoubtedly be explored further in an upcoming hearing of the House Pensions, Investments and Financial Services Committee.