The Ector County school district is asking voters for a raise. District officials have called a Tax Ratification Election (TRE) for Nov. 6, which would mean a 13 cents (per $100 in property valuation) tax hike for district homeowners and businesses. Ector County will be taxing its citizens the maximum maintenance and operation tax allowed by Texas law at $1.17.

Taxpayers should have a say in what their taxes will be. And it’s fair to ask Ector County officials how the district is using the dollars it already has. It’s a disservice to taxpayers and our communities to oversimplify the issue into “Support our schools, vote yes.” Instead, tough questions about student results should be asked and answered. Will Ector County effectively use each new tax dollar to improve student outcomes?

Remember, the power to tax is the power to take. Many homeowners already have trouble paying their tax bills, which just keep going up. And if illness or job loss or unforeseen circumstances prevent them from doing so, then they can lose their homes. It happens all too frequently in a state that relies so heavily on property taxes.

So asking critical questions about how property tax money will be used is more important than ever.

How is Ector County ISD doing?

Last summer, the state issued its new A-F report cards for Texas school districts, and Ector County’s results were disappointing. Overall, Ector County earned a D – a 67 out of a possible 100 points. What does that mean? According to the Texas Education Agency, it essentially means that not only are Ector County students not reading or doing math at grade level, but Ector County is performing worse than very similar school districts facing the same challenges. Indeed, 69 percent of Ector County students read below grade level, while 70 percent perform math below grade level. Thousands of students’ futures are at risk.

The school board has brought in interim Superintendent Jim Nelson to address some of the district’s needs. He says he wants to address the teacher shortage and educational attainment issues.

One thing he wants to focus on is teacher pay. Seven of the 13 cents of the tax hike would go to district pay; those on the teacher salary schedule (teachers, librarians, nurses, etc.) would receive across-the-board raises of $2,500 per year. Other district staff would receive 3.5 percent increases (based on the midpoint of their salary ranges).

Research shows that effective teachers can significantly improve student results, which should be the focus of Ector County. But if the goal is to attract and keep the best teachers possible, across-the-board raises aren’t the most effective way to do that. Across-the-board pay raises waste taxpayer resources by rewarding effective teachers along with ineffective teachers. Ector County ISD should ignore teacher union-backed seniority-based pay systems, which pay teachers based on how long they have taught, and consider emulating Dallas ISD’s innovative — and effective — merit-based teacher pay system. In fact, Dallas ISD’s merit pay system is credited with turning Dallas ISD’s student results around by attracting and retaining high performing teachers. Notably, Dallas ISD got a B in the A-F system.

Further, it doesn’t matter to kids whether their teacher has been teaching for two years or 20. What matters to students is how effectively that teacher can help them progress and reach their potential. That is important since 54 percent of Ector County students do not graduate college-, career- or military-ready.

Ector County is also not currently participating in many innovative and cost-effective options being offered by the Texas Education Agency (TEA). For example, unlike Midland ISD, Ector County is not currently participating in the System of Great Schools, which provides significant district support for school-wide reform and the adoption of new innovative school models, including charter partnerships.

On the positive side, the Ector County School Board was just selected to participate in TEA’s Lone Star Governance model. As part of this process, the Board will be required to establish specific, time limited student performance goals. A good start would be for the Board to focus on getting 50 percent or more of students reading at grade level by school year 2020-2021.

It is true that Ector County does have less money per student than the state average or regional average. But data from the Texas Education Agency shows there’s no significant correlation between spending levels and student results, and some low-spending, high-poverty school districts in the Rio Grande Valley are getting As. While more tax money might help, it will not if there isn’t a clear plan to spend it very wisely.

It’s also important that the discussion about Ector County’s TRE not be derailed by the same tired talking points, especially the unfounded claim that school districts are forced to raise taxes because the state isn’t doing its part.

Importantly, “the state” refers to state taxpayers; the very same taxpayers that are also paying their local Ector County ISD property tax bills. Furthermore, the state has not cut funding for public education. Overall funding for public education has increased from $43.1 billion in 2007 to $60.6 billion in 2017.

Voters on Nov. 6 will decide the fate of Ector County’s TRE. It’s up to the school district to convince them to vote yes.