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Teachers' Pet Peeves

By Kevin Fullerton, Fri., March 2, 2001

You've got to hand it to the teacher representatives at Education Austin: They love a good counterproposal, no matter how inconvenient it is for the leadership at the Austin Independent School District.

Attempting to divert attention from the district's headline issues of the past few months -- magnet school controversies and moldy school buildings -- the teachers' union has called on AISD Superintendent Pat Forgione to focus on teacher pay in upcoming budget discussions.

Forgione "says he's the teaching and learning guy," Education Austin co-president Louis Malfaro said at a press conference last Thursday, "but then the budget comes out and it's all about mold." Malfaro was referring to the superintendent's proposal to earmark $7 million of the district's general fund for renovations at AISD schools. Education Austin is asking the district to instead devote $11 million to boosting pay for employees, reducing class sizes, and creating a pool of full-time substitute teachers. Facility improvements should be paid for with a new bond election, not money out of the district's operating budget, said Malfaro, adding that "the kids are getting ripped off" as long as the district fails to focus its resources on reducing teacher turnover.

The group points out that last year's budget contained the smallest pay raise for AISD teachers in five years. Teacher salaries in the district lag behind those in the state's largest urban school districts, and are barely staying abreast of those in districts adjacent to AISD. Frustrated by Austin's high cost of living, teachers are deserting AISD schools for jobs outside the city, union officials said, contributing to a teacher turnover rate that is one of the highest in the region. Meanwhile, they said, AISD support staff are struggling to get by on poverty wages.

The union wants a 6% raise for classified employees, and an increase in teacher pay ranging from $1,825 to $2,475, depending on tenure. Union leaders say the district should hire substitute teachers as full-time employees and hire more teachers to reduce class sizes. Under their proposal, teachers certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards would get $3,000 stipends from the district.

Malfaro said the union has done its part to help keep teachers in Austin by forming a nonprofit development corporation that hopes to build a 300-unit apartment complex offering low rent to AISD employees. He said the union has asked the district to donate 15 acres of unused land near East 51st Street and Springdale as a site for that complex, which would be financed with tax-exempt bonds from the city and county, and cooperatively owned by the residents.

Education Austin also wants to sponsor a quality review assessment, developed by the National Education Association, at each of the district's campuses. The review, which union leaders say would help "identify dysfunction" in the organizational routines at schools, is offered free of charge to school districts by the NEA.

Education Austin and AISD had serious disagreements over the budget last year, with teachers lobbying for more pay and administrators declaring a full-blown budget crunch in the wake of AISD's recent entry into the property-rich Chapter 41 club -- meaning it has to return about $35 million in tax dollars to the state. Since then, Malfaro says, the district has been reluctant to embrace the union as a partner in the budget process. But, he adds, the union is determined not to let teachers and students get sacrificed "on the altar of Chapter 41."

The union wants the district to raise its tax rate and put a bond election on the fast track, placing it before voters by this fall. Their proposals aren't likely to get a warm reception from school district officials, who say this is a year when the budget needs to be trimmed, not expanded, and that it's too late to call for a bond referendum this year. AISD officials point out that a teacher pay increase of about $1,200 has already been proposed for next year, and that the district already staffs 95% of its classes with certified teachers.

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