The First AISD Cuts

Trustees cut positions and consider spending reserves

The First AISD Cuts

Like anyone whose bosses are telling them they'll get a pay cut, Austin ISD is working out how to cut costs. What the district's Board of Trustees heard tonight is that the state will hit their wallet so hard that the staff positions they cut tonight may be the first of many.

In total, the board eliminated 485 positions, including teachers at all levels. Out of the original staff proposals, the only ones spared the axe were the 52 elementary librarians, who the board described as too vital to lose. At the same time, trustees were forced to sacrifice 35 parent support specialists – a particularly bitter pill for trustees Sam Guzman, Cheryl Bradley and Vince Torres, who all praised their value for keeping families involved.

The big shift comes from teacher losses. Chief Human Capital Officer Michael Houser explained that changing the staffing formula alone will remove 334 positions system-wide, and that means serious changes in teacher contact hours.

Here's how that works: In the current academic year, middle and high school teachers are supposed to be seeing a class of 28 students for five out of seven periods. The new formulas push that to 29 students for six out of eight periods. That means that means each teacher's workload goes from 140 to 176 students. Pre-K classes go from 18 to 20 infants, K-4 rise from 22 to 24, and grades five and six stay at a target of 25 with a cap of 30. Education Austin president Rae Nwosu said she was told most of the staff cuts will come from natural attrition, and that there will be efforts to transfer and retrain laid-off staff for new positions. However, that still means fewer staff and fewer openings next year.

The staffing reductions will amount to a $26.5 million cut in district spending, but in total the board is eying roughly $65 million in savings. However, that still leaves them short over $35 million from their worst-case-scenarios. That means pulling cash out of their reserves. Trustee Robert Schneider remains the harshest critic of drawing down the fund balance: He took the opportunity to quiz chief financial officer Nicole Conley-Abram on why hitting the reserves could be a bad thing. She again pointed to potential problems for the district's bond rating, and its ability to self-insure.

There was also some finger-pointing at the state. Bradley went back to the long-running unfairness of the state's 'Robin Hood' recapture system, and suggested that the district should use Austin's positions as a net contributor to state coffers as leverage. "When we have been giving $1.3 billion to the state, you need to be saying something," she fumed to her fellow trustees.

Here's the converse of this: The state budget is in absolute crisis, of that there's no doubt, and the district will have to plan for that catastrophe. However, state spending for the next two years is far from set in stone, and cooler heads could prevail to send Texas back from this financial abyss.

But there's another complication. Since Texas is still locked into biennial budgeting, any savings garnered through slashing services will have to last for two years, and any spending out of savings in the next school year will need to be repeated in 2012.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

AISD, State Budget, Sam Guzman, Cheryl Bradley, Austin Independent School District, Vince Torres, Michael Houser, Nicole Conley-Abram

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