Riesel Independent School District recently got almost $1 million in state grant money, about a year after the appraisal for the district’s biggest taxpayer, the Sandy Creek power plant, was cut by more than half.

Riesel is one of 130 districts that got a grant from the Financial Hardship Transition Program, which was created during the 85th Legislature, Texas Education Agency spokesperson DeEtta Culbertson said.

Riesel got $965,122. The average for the 130 recipients was $769,230.

Voters in the district approved a $25 million bond in 2010 with the understanding that Sandy Creek’s taxes would cover 80 percent of the $1.8 million annual bond payment, Superintendent Brian Garner wrote in an email. The district had raised its tax rate in response to the cut to Sandy Creek’s appraisal.

A jury hearing the coal-fired plant’s challenge of its appraisal set its value at $408 million for 2014 and $431 million for 2015. The McLennan County Appraisal District had originally appraised the plant at $900 million for 2014 and $1.17 billion for 2015.

“The slash in the taxable value of Sandy Creek was substantial based on the court ruling,” Garner wrote. “The largest impact that the district and its community noticed was the increase in taxes on the interest and sinking side of the equation. The community has had to bear the burden.”

The district’s tax rate jumped from $1.31 per $100 of value in 2014-2015 to $1.4682 per $100 of value in 2016-2017, Garner said. Before the state had awarded the grant, Riesel was able to cut its tax rate back by almost 2 cents for 2017-2018, to $1.4503 per $100 of value.

The tax-rate cut was possible partially because the tax base has grown since Sandy Creek’s appraisal was slashed, Garner said. First-day enrollment also grew from 604 in 2016 to 652 this year, he wrote.

“We have a very healthy fund balance, and the grant helps us continue moving forward without too many restrictions,” Garner wrote. “It should be noted, we have operated without making unnecessary staff cuts or cuts within instruction. We have also hired in necessary areas due to an increase in student enrollment.”

The district has also been able to update its compensation plan, fund a $135,000 equipment upgrade for Foster Elementary School and buy new laptops for junior high and high school staff, Garner stated.

“Over the past year, we have moved forward with many initiatives. This grant money will help pay for these initiatives,” he wrote. “Also, the district just approved putting synthetic turf on our stadium field. All of these items were approved this year, in which we were able to drop the tax rate almost 2 cents. We have been very careful and have spent wisely during the uncertainty of the plant value.”

From here, the district will continue to monitor the plant’s tax value and adjust accordingly, Garner wrote.

Riesel ISD officials found out about their grant award under the state’s new Financial Hardship Transition Program late last week, Garner stated. The state also offers Adjustment for Rapid Decline in Taxable Value of Property payments to districts that experience a more than 4 percent decline to their tax base, according to a letter the TEA sent eligible districts last month.

Districts can only receive one of the two types of grants, and they do not have to apply to receive money. Rather, the state determines eligibility based on financial summaries. If a district could qualify for both, it receives whichever grant is bigger.

Hallsburg ISD was the only other district in McLennan County that got a financial hardship grant. It got $364.

Shelly Conlon has covered K-12 education for the Tribune-Herald since July 2016. Prior to the Tribune-Herald, she was the managing editor for the Waxahachie Daily Light, and an intern for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

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