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Houston Board Backs Budget That Includes 32% Tax Hike

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The Houston school board has approved a new budget that will raise teacher pay, add magnet-school programs, boost middle schools' staffing, and provide for long-deferred repairs in school buildings.

To pay for these improvements, the board approved a 32 percent increase in property taxes. While the increase may appear staggering to some, it was adopted only after Superintendent Frank Petruzielo failed to muster enough support for two earlier budget plans that had called for 47 percent and 37 percent property-tax increases, respectively.

School trustees rejected those budgets in recent months, but they unanimously approved Mr. Petruzielo's third plan on Aug. 27 after hearing testimony from about 75 community members both in support of and in opposition to the budget.

School officials had said earlier they would need a tax increase of at least 27 percent to maintain current programs and deal with new enrollment.

Much of the new revenue will offset a projected loss of about $180 million over the next two years under Texas's new school-finance law, officials said.

The rest will help pay for several programs in the district's $954 million budget. They include a 6.72 percent pay raise for teachers, eight new magnet programs, $15 million for maintainence projects such as air conditioning and roof repairs, and $3 million to introduce clustered classes into middle schools.

Tax-Rate Increase

Under the budget, the district's property-tax rate will increase from $1.05 to $1.385 per $100 in valuation. The increase means the owner of a $75,000 home will pay about $761 in property taxes to the district, an increase of $184 from last year.

The rate hike was denounced by a group of anti-tax activists who addressed the board at its Aug. 27 meeting and threatened to fight the increase by placing the matter on the ballot.

"We are not only going to roll back the taxes, we are going to roll you out of here,'' one activist reportedly told school trustees.

But the challenge faces a legal obstacle because under state law tax increases must be of a certain magnitude to qualify for referral to voters at the polls. Houston school officials said they did not believe the 32 percent increase would qualify for the ballot.

Other community members, meanwhile, were upset that the school trustees did not approve a higher tax rate, and thus provide more funding for educational programs.

One speaker accused the trustees of "cowering behind the business interests of this city,'' apparently a reference to the Greater Houston Partnership, the city's most influential business group.

The partnership declined to support the first two budget proposals put forth by Mr. Pertruzielo.

"We felt that asking for those tax increases would unduly harm the Houston business community,'' said Toby Stark, a spokeswoman for the partnership. "We wanted to see some accountability tied to the budget.''

Mr. Petruzielo met with representatives of the business group to see what tax rate they could support before introducing his third budget.

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