By Gail M. Williams
Muleshoe Journal Correspondent
On Wednesday, Sept. 11, Ken King, District 88 representative for the State of Texas, held a town hall meeting at AimBank in Muleshoe. He was introduced by Dr. R.L. Richards, superintendent of Muleshoe High School.
Richards mentioned that District 88 runs 450 miles diagonally, from the northeast corner of the Panhandle to Yoakum County, which means King has to travel 1,200 miles to cover the district.
“He cares about the kids and communities of rural Texas,” Richards said.
King was first elected in 2012, and is up for re-election in 2020.
“Every 10 years, they redraw the maps,” King said.
He added that the current map requires a population of 160,000 in order to create a district. The population of Texas has grown so much that it may take 200,000 to form a district.
“It’s so important that Muleshoe has rural representation,” King said. “Amarillo and Lubbock don’t need you, and we don’t need you to get gobbled up in their districts. If you know somebody that doesn’t vote, grab them by the ears and take them to the polls.”
King said that in the last midterm election the Texas House lost 12 seats.
“The Texas House could turn Democrat, which would bad for redistricting, because urban Democrats don’t care about rural representation. In the last midterm, we almost lost all statewide Republicans, but rural Texas came in with a million votes that kept Texas red. Please vote.”
During the 86th Legislative Session, the House passed a $251 billion budget, the largest ever passed. HB3 provided extra funds for teachers’ salaries.
“The only financial mandate the state has is that public schools are going to get funded by the state,” King said.
King said $11 billion was allocated for aid to public education including teacher pay, early childhood education, the TRS Care pension fund and mental health, with $5 billion to buy down property taxes. He pointed out that the state used to rely on oil as a major source of income, but now income from oil revenues only counts for 9 percent of the state’s gross profit, compared to 1993 when it accounted for 38 percent of the state’s gross profit.
At this time the state’s income comes from diverse assets such as pharmaceutical, medical, information technology and manufacturing.
“Texas still has the lowest unemployment in nation,” King said.”Property taxes continue to rise even if they’re depressed here.”
Under the old system of Chapter 41-42, property wealthy districts were favored over property poor districts.
“We were funding zip codes,” King said. “We took those and threw them in the trash. Chapter 48-49 is a system to fund based on student need. Every child has an equal educational opportunity. … Did fix it all? No, we did not. But we did our best to address TRS, early child care, teacher pay and incentive pay.”
King called the issue of mental health “hard.” In Senate Bill 11, $20 million went to schools on the heels of the Santa Fe shooting.
“Some of that was for hardening our schools. I’m not one to believe we should turn our schools into prisons. I want to know why kids are shooting kids. That was what SB 11 was about.”
King said the legislature is looking for ways to cut costs. He told the group about a woman named Melissa who was, horribly abused by uncle.
“Through some crazy loophole that said she was prohibited to be married to this man only gave the perpetrator 30 years. People wanted it to be life in prison, and now they can.”
King said this is an example of how state legislature is supposed to work.
“Local people said this needs to be changed, they wrote the bill and brought to me. They did their job, I did my job. Then it’s up to the Senate to do their job, and the governor to sign it. This collaboration operates so much better if you tell me what you need.”
“Government works like it’s supposed to,” King continued. “It’s pretty surreal when you compare to FOX News or CNN. There are so many different issues.”
King brought up HB 2604, a bill that contains a grant that lets volunteer firefighters and first responders get money from the state.
“The No. 1 killer of firefighters is cancer,” King said.
Previously, the grant wouldn’t cover personal protective equipment for rural firefighters.
“There would be one set of bunkers and five sets of fires,” King said. “They had no way of changing their clothes or washing them out between fires.”
In addition, HB 2604 wouldn’t cover extractors to remove contaminants from clothes or equipment.
“In 2016, Texas lost over a million acres to wildfires,” King said. “Twenty-six counties were decimated. The grant process can take a long time, and it became a matter of smaller versus larger fire departments. Due to changes in HB 2604, any county declared a disaster by the government moves to the front of the line.”
Ken concluded his remarks by saying, “The people of the 88th District make it clear that what they need most is water, education, transportation and for me to stay out of their business. That’s what I try to do for you.”
When Muleshoe High Principal Cindy Bessire asked to be recognized, King said, “I remember you. You yelled at me last time.”
Bessire laughed and admitted that she had. However, she said, her teachers were happy to get a 12 percent salary increase and an 11 percent decrease in property taxes.
Darla Myatt, Special Education Director at MISD, thanked King for his continuing support for education, but wondered how schools were going to implement the dyslexic requirements.
King said that was a good question.
“We’ve given (Education Commissioner) Mike Morath, unprecedented latitude, but, trying to do no harm, we may need to reel him back in,” King said. “If anything implemented is harmful to you or your students, I need to be your first phone call.”
When the topic of assessments for PreK and kindergarten came up, King called the A-F system “a flop.”
“We’re trying to develop a way to assess that is not the test,” he said. “Assessment now is either the test or attendance. Attendance is an assessment on the parents, so that doesn’t help us. We need to develop an assessment for grades 3 through 8 that is not a test. … We are not going to be STAAR testing 3-year-olds. If they do, I’m leaving.”
King added that a lot of focus groups are working on an assessment right now. “If you’d like to be part of that group, let us know, and I’ll get you in one.”
King expressed concern that teachers were leaving the profession. In part, the reason for this is that teachers look at their own parents and see that they were poorly paid and, after retirement, have little insurance. He said that the state needs to get out of the insurance business and give teachers a better COLA (cost-of-living) increase so that they could afford to buy their own insurance. Teachers who are on TRS Care are rolling off at age 65 in favor of Medicare. The problem comes in with teachers who retire between the ages of 55 to 65.
“TRS Care was never built to be sustainable,” King said. “Over the next five years, we’ll spend over a billion per biennium into it. We spend $5 billion now … We can’t keep dumping billions of dollars down that rat hole.”
Melvin Nusser, Watson Junior High principal asked about immigration, saying someone needs to write a bill to give relief to schools that have immigrant children.
“Since we are a border state, we get a lot of kids that are non-English-speaking, and even some that are non-Spanish speaking,” he said. “It’s required by the federal government to get those kids enrolled. … For many of the 13 to 14 years old, the last time they were educated was in the second grade.”
King said that it was difficult to say whether a waiver process would be successful.
“It’s tricky how you write the bill,” he said. “If you’ve got a fix for it, make sure I know it, make sure my office knows it.”
Bessire pointed out that many students won’t pass the SAT or ACT tests because the tests are tied to Common Core, and Texas is not a Common Core state.
King responded that Kel Seliger, Republican senator from District 31, had a great bill which stated that if a kid passes all his or her course work but can’t pass the Texas test, the ARD (Admission, Review and Dismissal) committee could determine whether the child passes or fails. However, the bill was struck down because it was deemed unconstitutional under No Child Left Behind.
Responding to a remark that King made saying it takes three to five years to develop a great teacher, Letti Tovar, principal of Dillman Elementary School, said the same principle could apply to students, and that if a student is a freshman in high school and is failing, in three years, their high school career is over.
“We love these kids that were getting,” Tovar said, adding that at DeShazo, 23 students had no language and no educational background.
The question came up whether Texas was still one of the few states that doesn’t tax groceries. King said he didn’t think the taxes have to be expanded from groceries.
“Little bitty things like the ‘sin’ tax, taxes on alcohol and cigarettes. It’s just like the lottery. At most it grossed $3.5 billion. It never was going to pay for public education.”
King said the one resource Texas has going for it today is the sales tax.
“When you’re getting 100,000 kids a year, and a lot of them don’t speak English, it costs more to educate them. … “Texas needs more money, and a lot of it’s going to come through the voter. You can’t spend or tax a new revenue stream without the voters. You get to decide if you want to pay for something or if you don’t. It’s a great thing.”
At one point during the meeting, a tall man in a blue pullover spoke from the back of the room, challenging King on an abortion bill vote.
“Two years ago, you voted for late-term abortion. It’s well documented.”
King responded that he did not vote against the bill but against an amendment to the bill.
“It was not about babies with disabilities but about babies with severe fetal abnormalities,” King said. “This is about babies that developed without a spine.”
“That’s not true,” the man said. “I’m a doctor. Abnormalities can be a lot of things. I know a little about that.”
King said the amendment addressed 20-week abortions. “If they have to do it after 20 weeks, there’s a good reason.”
“No, there’s not,” the man said. “There’s never a good reason for aborting a baby.”
The two went back and forth with King citing his record on abortion and his 100 percent rating, while the man countered by saying that he did not have a good rating on abortion.
“You misconstrued what I said and what I’m about,” King said.
The unidentified man came to the meeting late and left early. Those who were asked about him did not know who he was. His signature and address on the sign-in sheet were indecipherable.
King concluded the meeting by saying, that he had written one speech in his life, that it was horrible, and he decided never to do it again.
“I made up my mind that when I get up and talk to people, I would be honest and talk straight from the heart. What you need to know about me in the upcoming election is that I’ll never lie to you. My door is always open, and I have big shoulders. I am pro-education; I know how important that is to our state, important to our small towns.”