Slow down, AISD

Although every school district around the state is getting ready for the legislative budget ax to fall, Austin ISD seems more eager than most to fire teachers.

OK, OK, maybe “eager” is too strong a word. But AISD administrators seem to be chomping at the bit to decide how many teachers and other employees to lay off to help close an anticipated budgetary shortfall, even though they don’t know for sure yet how big their financial hole will be.

The AISD board tonight will be looking at a preliminary budget proposal, prepared by the district administration, which calls for eliminating 1,153 jobs (including 571 teachers), cutting programs and increasing class sizes, which is what happens when you reduce the number of teachers. Board members also are being asked to declare that AISD is in a state of financial emergency, which is what they have to do under current state law to make it easier to eliminate teaching positions under contract.

The Austin AmericanStatesman has a fuller account of the meeting’s agenda in a story linked at the bottom of this post.

Rae Nwosu, copresident of Education Austin, the TSTA affiliate that represents more than 4,000 district employees, has urged the board to postpone a vote on the financial emergency until AISD has a clearer picture of what the Legislature will do about the state budget. Rae is correct.

Under the current statehouse leadership, there is little doubt that the public education budget will share in spending cuts that will be made to close a state revenue shortfall as high as $27 billion. But with a little luck – and a lot of growing outrage from parents and other concerned citizens throughout Texas – the reductions won’t be as deep as the initial cuts included in the initial legislative budgetary proposals.

For one thing, the initial budget plans don’t contemplate spending any of the state’s $9.4 billion Rainy Day Fund because that’s the approach demanded by Gov. Rick Perry and the vocal Tea Party advocates who want to shrink state government, even if it means gutting the public schools.

But support for spending at least some (maybe most) of the Rainy Day Fund is growing among key legislators. They know that is the right thing to do, and they realize that passing crippling budget cuts will jeopardize their reelection bids among the vast majority of voters who care about public education and other critical services. TSTA, meanwhile, will continue to urge the Legislature to spend all of the Rainy Day Fund and seek new revenue sources as well.

The AISD board also has another financial option. They can ask local voters for a modest increase in property taxes. For the past three years, AISD’s tax rate for school operations has been about $1.08 per $100 valuation. That’s about 9 cents below the maximum allowed by the state, if voters approve. School board members obviously fear a political backlash if they propose a tax increase. But they should ask local voters if they would rather see their kids crammed into overcrowded classrooms and some neighborhood schools closed – or pay a few more cents on their school taxes.

AISD parents already have made it clear they don’t want to see neighborhood schools shut down.

Under current state law, AISD has until April 15, six weeks from now, before it has to notify contract employees if their jobs are being cut. And, a bill has been filed in the Legislature, with bipartisan support, to give districts more time before final termination decisions are made. The bill would keep the April deadline (45 days before the end of the school year) but allow districts to postpone final decisions on whether to retain or lay off a notified teacher until after the school year ends in June.

The idea is to minimize employee layoffs as much as possible.

The AISD board needs to take a deep, collective breath and slow down.

1 Comment

  • If one goes back to read Comptroller Strayhorn’s 2006 letter to Gov. Perry, one will notice that she forecasts an annual shortfall of about $2 Billion between the reduced property tax revenues and the increased franchise tax revenues. Now TEA is showing us scenarios that will save Texas education $2B per year. Coincidence or harmonic convergence?

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