Daily Progress, Jacksonville, TX

October 1, 2012

School districts score well on FIRST ratings

Faith Harper
Jacksonville Daily Progress


School districts across Cherokee County received a superior stamp of approval from the Texas Education Agency on their financial accountability.

Jacksonville, Rusk, Bullard and New Summerfield received the highest rating in the TEA's Financial Integrity Rating System of Texas (FIRST) annual reports for the 2010 – 2011 school year.

The FIRST looks at a wide range of identifiers that contribute to a sound district, including tax collection rates, student to teacher ratios, percent of debt compared to revenues, decrease in unrestricted reserve funds and more.

Some identifiers are scored a 'yes' or 'no' while others are graded on a point system from zero to five. A passing score is 52 points and a perfect score is a 70. A superior rating falls between a score of 64 and 70, said Lindy Finley, assistant superintendent of finance and operations for Jacksonville ISD.

Finley said this is the tenth consecutive year for the district to achieve the rating.

“It's not a one-time test you take, it's based on your year-long performance and fiscal responsibility,” she said.

The district scored a 68. Finley said the deducted points had to so with a higher teacher-to-student ratio  in its classrooms and the amount of debt in its debt service fund.

“We increased (our debt) this time, but the taxpayers vote on that so it's not anything to be concerned about,” she said. “We are way under the debt rate that is allowed by law.”

Rusk ISD achieved a perfect score of 70. Officials said this is the tenth year for the district to receive the rating.

“The superior achievement is due to the successful efforts of the board of trustees, administration, faculty and staff of Rusk ISD,” said Lesa Jones, director of finance at Rusk ISD. “These groups have successfully utilized resources available to the district to provide a quality education to the students of Rusk ISD.”

New Summerfield scored a 65. Superintendent Gregg Weiss said this is the sixth to seventh year the district has achieved the rating.

Five points were deducted from a category comparing information submitted to TEA through its reporting system to information in the district's financial auditing report.

“We paid off some buildings, I think that might have triggered something,” Weiss said.

Weiss said the district paid between $800,000 and $900,000 to pay off its cafeteria building. He said the expenditure generally runs about $150,000 per year.

“We've been saving for some construction and building programs and we decided to go ahead and pay off that debt,” he said.

“I've got a very conscientious board and we try to stick to that plan, get kids what they need and being conservative and putting back for these kind of days,” Weiss said. “It's been tough.”

Bullard ISD also achieved a perfect score of 70.

Officials from Bullard ISD could not be reached by press time.