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At Struggling Fort Davis ISD, Student Volunteers Revive the Band

The Fort Davis band has returned to the field, but only as a volunteer effort. The band program was cut in February. (KRTS/Lorne Matalon)

Last month, a Travis County district judge ruled the state’s education finance system is unconstitutional.

Judge John Diez ruled the system doesn’t give schools enough money to meet state-approved standards, and that it puts too much of a burden on local taxpayers.

Fort Davis ISD is one of hundreds of other districts across the state trying to tackle budget shortfalls as that case makes its way through the courts. The state legislature cut more than $5 billion in funding in 2011.

View a timeline history of the battle over school funding in Texas, from the Houston Chronicle.

“In 2008 the state’s contribution to our budget was 68% - the state contribution to our budget last year was 28%,” says Superintendent Graydon Hicks. “That’s a problem.”

Meanwhile, the district has cut $3 million in spending over the last six years.

“We simply cannot keep up cutting spending fast enough to follow the cuts in funding,” he says.

Still, they’ve had to try.

The district doesn’t get a lot of money from enrollment - it only has about 200 students. So, they’ve frozen salaries and removed some staff positions. They also cut spending on extracurriculars, even getting rid of meals for student athletes when they travel.

The district also cut its track, tennis and golf programs among others, but the decision to get rid of the band has perhaps drawn the most attention.

“Honestly, I cried,” says 17-year-old Tierney Foster. She’s one of a just a handful of students keeping the band alive, even though they’re not getting class credit.

They practice four days a week for two hours, led by Volunteer Band Director Mike Hill, just for the love of it.

“Band is one of the few things I’m good at it,” says Foster, “and when they got rid of it, it was like a piece of my life was being thrown away."

School Board President Steve Merrill says that kind of impact on the students prompted the district’s push for a 13 cent tax increase.

“Knowing that sacrifices had already been made by the students, it was time for us to go ahead and make those sacrifices as well,” he says.

Voters approved the new tax this year, but it failed last year, and this year the results were still pretty close – it passed by about 30 votes.

Opponents say it’s actually the district that should’ve made more sacrifices, not the taxpayers.

Republican County Chairman Harold Pattillo rallied against the increase. He says the district’s focusing on the kids to distract people from cuts that could’ve been made elsewhere.

“It makes it seem like they had their backs to the wall and had no other alternatives,” he says, “which of course they do."

Pattillo says he wouldn’t have cut band or art or any other programs. He’d instead look for savings in teachers’ benefits.

He describes the loss of the band as a “good psychological move” on the part of the board.

“It mad a lot of the people that are just barely familiar with what’s going on sympathetic to the school board, and to the kids and the teachers,” he says.

Superintendent Hicks says he couldn’t afford to risk losing any more teachers.

He says if the board started messing with healthcare - pretty much the only benefit teachers have – teachers wary about staying in this already-struggling district might decide it’s just not worth it anymore.

While all this political and fiscal wrangling over the district’s future has been going on, the students themselves say they’ve felt powerless to decide how it all turns out. After all, most of them can’t vote.

We asked 15-year-old Oscar Nuñez, also in the band, if the board ever asks the students what they think about all this.

“They say that they do to the press and everything, but they don’t,” he says. “They hear our opinions, but they don’t think they’re valid enough to consider.”

Foster says students have tried to convince the board to keep the band, but it didn’t work.

“We tried multiple, multiple times to speak up for band, but we weren’t taken into consideration,” she says.

The district does have a balanced budget now, thanks to the new tax, and the hope is they can bring back all the cut programs someday down the road, though there’s no telling when that might happen.

Steve Merrill insists the new tax is in the students’ best interest.

Hovering over the tax debate, there’s a general sense of frustration here and across state that lawmakers are dragging their feet.

“If nothing changes on school finance, the next three years are going to be as difficult as this year if not more so,” Hicks says.

Pattillo says he asked a former Fort Davis superintendent if there was any hope the legislature or the courts could fix the system. Her answer: no.

For now though, the fate of school funding is waiting in the courts. Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office has said it will appeal the ruling against the funding system.

Meanwhile, students in Fort Davis are keeping the band marching at games, and trying to stay positive.

“It is important, not just to me, but I know to future generations it’ll also be important,” says Foster. “We need to get this stuff back up on its feet as soon as possible.”

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.