Budget Blackboard

Write 100 Times: AISD Needs More Money



AISD Superintendent Jim Fox

photograph by Alan Pogue

When it came to making the budget for 1997-98, officials of the Austin Independent School District say they were forced to put the cart before the horse this time out. School officials on May 29 released a proposed budget for the 1997-98 school year of $457.5 million, representing a little more than a 10% increase, or $45.9 million, in spending over last year's budget of $411.5 million. But it wasn't until June 4, after receiving information from the Texas Education Agency (TEA) on the district's financial prospects, that they were able to project a tax rate, school officials said. AISD Budget Director David Rastellini estimates that a nine cent increase in the current tax rate of 1.311 would be needed to fund the proposed budget, bringing the preliminary tax rate to about $1.40 per $100 property valuation. The cause of the delay, of course, was the long, protracted (and ultimately, rather fruitless) struggle at the Texas Legislature over property tax reform. Modest tax relief will come in the form of a boost in the state's homestead exemption, from $5,000 to $15,000, pending a successful statewide referendum in August. So while AISD's tax rate hike -- 7% -- seems hefty, the homestead exemptions will mean that most property owners will actually see a dip in their tax bills. AISD budget analysts still predict a 10% increase to district coffers, however, due to an ever expanding tax base. And they'll need the money, they say.

AISD plans to spend more, and district officials believe the money it gets from the state won't carry the district far enough, in terms of student achievement.

Several things account for the nine cent increase in the district's tax rate: a penny for the 1997 bond sale, a penny and a quarter to handle the increase in student enrollment, two cents for classroom technology, and 43/4cents for raises for all AISD workers. (Voters have already given their assent to part of this increase when they passed an April 1996 bond measure -- the bond sale, and the classroom technology equipment.) But also, district officials claim, they don't want to economize on students.

Referring to the state's much embattled equalization funding plan, whereby property-wealthy school districts share their funds with poor ones, AISD Superintendent Jim Fox said the Legislature got off on the right foot, trying to "buy its way out of Robin Hood." But lawmakers' attempt to do that by using sales taxes failed, and the "Robin Hood" structure will essentially stay in place. And year after year, the state's contribution to AISD's coffers dwindles. This year, only about 7% of the local budget will be funded with state monies. Within two years, Fox said, he expects state support to dry up completely.

"What has happened, in essence, is we're equalizing down," Fox said. He believes the State of Texas hasn't really faced the problem of properly funding public education and consequently is putting the burden on local districts. "Therefore we have to recommend this tax rate in order to continue to invest in our children," he said.

AISD Deputy Superintendent Kay Psencik emphasized that the budget is geared around curriculum, and focuses on several student achievement goals, including doubling the number of AISD schools that are deemed "recognized" and "exemplary" by the Texas Education Agency, ensuring that all third grade children can read at grade level or above, and having 5,000 high school students who mirror AISD's ethnic makeup enrolled in Advanced Placement courses. She believes that recent, large gains in the 1997 TAAS test scores, among other events, indicate that AISD is doing something right, so this is no time to slow down. "Student achievement is increasing in this district, more students are staying in school, and they're doing better," said Psencik. "So continuing on [with what we've been doing] is very important."

A few highlights of spending increases include:

  • $6.2 million for core curriculum instruction, including $1.3 million to expand the popular and successful Reading Recovery program and provide a literacy expert at every campus; $870,850 to continue training and implementation of two new math curricula, Connected Mathematics Project and Investigations; and $399,520 for elementary social studies support materials.
  • $17.2 million for instructional support, $7.8 million of which will be spent on classroom technology, network, and telecommunications support; $120,000 to expand elementary bilingual summer school; and $1 million for staff and materials at all school libraries.
  • $15.4 million for business support services, including $1.5 million for year-round maintenance and housekeeping services, and to establish and carry out routine building maintenance; and $400,000 for additional bus routes.
  • $507,000 for 1998 school board elections and board recognitions and awards.
  • $11.4 million for 4% pay hikes for professional and classified AISD employees, 3.5% for administrators, plus an improved dental plan.

Public reaction to the proposed budget was mixed at a June 11 public hearing. Although several speakers expressed appreciation for the new spending on libraries and for extending the work year of some classified employees, several more had complaints about the way the budget process was handled, about rash expenditures in technology, about cuts in funding for low-socioeconomic campuses, and about the inadequacy of the proposed teacher pay raises.

For the second year, a districtwide "budget council," comprised of AISD staffers, parents, and community members, met over several months to deliberate budget proposals. Of the 91 members of the council, approximately one quarter were parents or interested community members. One parent who served on the council, Gary Price, told the board "The budget process needs work." For example, he said, he himself made repeated requests for data on individual campuses' expenditures that were never filled. (District spokeswoman Della May Moore said that data for 1996-97 was not available, but that prior years' data is available.)

Price also claimed that the non-AISD employees on the council had no input into programs, and that campus staffing decisions also were off the table, despite the fact that teacher payroll is the biggest chunk of the budget. Moore admitted that campus staffing formulas aren't under the purview of the budget council, but are an "administrative decision," which the AISD Board of Trustees then deliberates, along with AISD staff. The board's recommendation is added to the administrators' decision, she said.

Price also termed as "bizarre" the district's plan to spend money on a glitzy, video-based technology program. Why bizarre? Because when it comes to technology, AISD could be in for a penny -- and in for a pound. Technology spending for 1997-98 includes $4.8 million for classroom technology (which would have video capability), $1.25 million to upgrade software and buy computer furniture, $670,000 for network support all over the district, and $1.08 million for doubling the number of telephone lines and hiring support staff.

Laptops for teachers and computer networks are fine, Price argues, but a video server system is very high-maintenance and, given how quickly technology becomes obsolete, the system could commit AISD to ongoing expenses that may soon seem imprudent. He noted that the district seems to have plenty of money to spend on hardware and software vendors, but not for things parents clamor for, such as more art, music, and P.E. teachers (especially for kindergartners).


Meanwhile, members of Austin Interfaith have protested a controversial move to reduce supplemental funds to low-income campuses by $1 million, and have not abandoned their stance -- even though AISD administration officials say those funds will be redistributed to other curriculum initiatives, such as Reading Recovery. "The initiatives they are offering are going to all campuses, not specifically to low-income schools," said Interfaith co-chair Regina Rogoff. "And what we are concerned with is the impact upon low-income children."

The trustee who is most in favor of going ahead with this reduction is Tom Agnor, who notes that low-income campuses receiving federal Title I monies spend much more per pupil than campuses who don't qualify for the funds. "It takes more to educate [poor children], there's no argument," Agnor said. But the board's cut would only result in a $103 per student loss, he says. "That doesn't seem serious to me."

But the fact remains, Rogoff argues, that campuses will be facing losses in their budgets, and will have to consider such painful decisions as not rehiring a counselor, or ceasing their tutoring programs. What's more, she said, only half of the affected campuses will benefit from expanded Reading Recovery efforts this school year; the rest won't get it until the following school year.

In recent weeks, several AISD Board members have also expressed concern that external oversight by parent groups has been lacking from the budget process, but AISD officials and the main parent group agree that that oversight may not be needed under the new process. Formerly, members of the Austin City Council of Parent Teacher Associations (ACCPTA) analyzed each budget and reported on its true impact upon students; for many, it was the only way to really understand what the district was proposing. But that was before Fox's era. Now, the district prepares a program-based budget, and expenditures are organized around curriculum and instruction, as well as the business side of AISD's affairs -- no more hunting through line items to figure out what's being cut and what's being spent. Accordingly, because the budget is easier for all interested stakeholders to understand, ACCPTA didn't need to dissect and interpret the budget anymore, said ACCPTA President Pascual Piedfort. And because many of its members now serve on the budget council, he is not concerned about ACCPTA losing external oversight of the budget. "I think it's more important for us to be one of several groups in the process," he said.

When asked to respond to lingering criticism that parents and outside groups are being cut out of making the budget, Psencik replied, "We are constantly looking at ways in which we can engage people in the process." She said that she will take in criticisms on how well the council functioned and use them to improve the process next year. "By inviting involvement, we invite the opportunity for criticism, and I think it's healthy," she said.

Another point of contention -- teacher pay raises -- is a perennial battle. A 4% hike in pay might seem reasonable, said Austin Association of Teachers President Ruben Valdez, Jr. But the hike doesn't represent an across-the-board raise, only the average hike at the midrange of the salary schedule. Teachers who are paid less see more of a raise, while teachers who are paid more get less of a raise. Therefore, he said, the district's more experienced teachers would receive salaries for 1997-98 that hover at the state minimum pay scale. Valdez, like parent Gary Price, also thinks the technology piece of the budget deserves better scrutiny. "One may need to ask if the `tools of the 21 century' might need to be purchased in the 21st century," he said.

Valdez's counterpart at the city's other major teachers' group, Austin Federation of Teachers President Louis Malfaro, has similar criticisms. He took issue with a statement Superintendent Fox made in a budget council session -- that teachers don't come to AISD for the money, they come for the vision. "If `vision' is attracting teachers," said Malfaro, "why do we need to pay nationally competitive principals' salaries?"

Malfaro's point speaks to a oft-stated priority for Superintendent Fox -- taking care of leadership first, which he believes is the foundation of all the district's affairs. Principals are considered a key leadership position in AISD, concurred spokeswoman Moore. "Leadership is the driving force for success of all students," she said. Therefore, those leaders have to be recruited, not stumbled upon. "We can't wait until they find us," Moore said.

Recent rises in standardized test scores and other indicators of student achievement demonstrate that the philosophy is working, she added.

AISD board members are set to adopt the proposed budget on Monday, June 23. If the last two public hearings -- on June 11 and June 17 -- are an accurate barometer of the strength (or lack thereof) of the opposition, this budget, with a very few adjudtments, should become a reality.

For more on the budget plan, recent TAAS scores, and more, check the district's website at http://www.austin.isd.tenet.edu/

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