A Few Cutting Remarks
Teacher representatives, fearing that the state comptroller's audit of the Austin Independent School District may seduce the district into privatizing some operations, have submitted their own budget-cutting measures to the citizens budget advisory committee. Education Austin co-president Louis Malfaro says his group's plan is intended as a "dialogue piece" rather than a tactical blueprint, but he hopes that it will help keep the community from chasing after savings promised in the Texas Performance Review that aren't real. "My fear is that they're going to seize on stuff in [Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander's] report that looks easy in terms of contracting out services," says Malfaro.
This week, the budget committee is expected to send AISD superintendent Pat Forgione a list of priorities to consider as his office works to scale down the district's budget, which Forgione insists must be cut by $28 million for AISD to cope with its new status as a property-rich district under Chapter 41. That list will likely contain few concrete proposals, but several committee members are championing Rylander's report -- which touts $57 million in savings over five years -- as a budgetary guidebook. The report recommends outsourcing the district's payroll system, and many are talking about privatizing transportation, custodial, and food services as well.
Education Austin, however, is urging the district to be skeptical of the report's conclusions. For instance, Malfaro points out, payroll division employees have been handicapped by an obsolete computer network that AISD is in the process of replacing.
In view of Rylander's finding that AISD's central administration budget has grown by 22% in three years while student enrollment went up only 4.6%, Malfaro argues that the district should cut from the top of the pyramid, not the bottom. State audits have shown that the human resources division is severely shorthanded, he points out, and the district lopped off lower-level support personnel when it cut $14 million from the budget last year. Education Austin agrees with the comptroller that the district could save $18 million over five years through administrative reductions, but argues that policy personnel closer to the superintendent should taste the axe this time. Forgione has said he prefers cutting administration by $1.2 million over three years.
Malfaro disputes the comptroller's assertion that the district has a surfeit of portable buildings it could sell off, netting savings of $16 million over five years. "The way she calculated capacity was nuts," he says, approximating the reaction from district staff. Performance Review auditors based total capacity on the assumption that each classroom can hold 24 students, seven hours per day. Based on that, the report concluded that many AISD secondary campuses are underutilized and that portables at those schools are unnecessary.
But Malfaro counters that if classrooms were full every hour of the day, working conditions would be intolerable for teachers, who don't have offices to use during planning periods. Education Austin suggests that the district hold off on purchasing additional portables, but sell off only those that are in disrepair. Altogether, they've identified about $9 million in savings for next year's budget. That's far short of the savings Forgione wants, but Malfaro says it's unnecessary, if not harmful, to hold the district to a $28 million cutback given the unpredictability of tax appraisals.
Education Austin has been mostly critical of the superintendent's budget-squashing strategy thus far, ever since Forgione proposed replacing block class schedules at AISD secondary schools with a traditional seven-hour schedule and assigning teachers an extra hour of classroom duty. Malfaro refers to Forgione's attempt to change the schedules as a "comedy of errors" that ultimately saved the district no money and alienated teachers and parents. (The superintendent's staff contends that the new class schedules resulted in cuts of $1.8 million. AISD spokespersons were not available to comment on the particulars of Education Austin's proposed budget cuts.)
Meanwhile, members of the budget advisory committee report some frustration with the district for structuring their first three meetings as tutorials on school finance and Chapter 41 rather than opening the floor for discussions on the budget. The Saturday, April 29, meeting was the first in which the committee began to list its preferences for budget cuts, and that work was supposed to have wrapped up Tuesday, with the superintendent's proposals expected on May 12.