Robin Was Here

The Austin Independent School District administration released next year's proposed school budget last week, and to no one's surprise it included both cost squeezes and higher taxes. The big hickeys are a $55.4 million increase that AISD must return to the state under the school-equity program (aka "Robin Hood"), and a $7 million increase for employees' health insurance -- also mandated by the Legislature. Those increases were anticipated, as was a 5 cent bump in the property tax rate -- bringing AISD's rate to the legal limit of $1.50 per $100 of assessed value (plus an additional 10 cents for debt retirement). The school equity increase, a function of the district's relatively high overall property values, now brings AISD's payment for poorer districts to $148 million -- a whopping 21% of the $707 million budget.

The proposed budget is now under review by AISD's budget review advisory committee, which will make its recommendations to the board of trustees. In presenting it, Forgione described the district's "Number one priority" as "finding the revenue to give a meaningful pay raise for our Austin school district employees -- a pay raise which they rightfully deserve, and which we can afford." Advisory committee members were quick to reiterate that goal, but in what can be described (at least) as a public relations gaffe of major proportions, Forgione's budget nowhere reflects its supposed first priority. Instead, the only pay increase listed on the proposal was a total of $150,000 earmarked for the five area superintendents, which works out roughly to a 20% raise for each. Forgione says he needs the increases if he's going to retain his top administrators, who would otherwise flee to smaller, wealthier districts. But his budget seems to ignore the fact that the district has also been hemorrhaging teachers for some time.

That was the response from Education Austin, the union that represents some 4,000 AISD teachers and staff. EA released a statement noting that the turnover rate for teachers is roughly one in six, and that the annual rate of teachers leaving the district has jumped from 12% to 18% in the last five years. They noted that despite Austin's high cost of living, teachers here earn less on average than teachers in most of the state's major urban districts, including roughly $4,000 a year less than Dallas teachers. The union is asking for an $1,800 annual raise across the board for teachers -- $2,400 for those with master's degrees -- as well as additional employee assistance and mentoring programs, especially for new and uncertified teachers.

AISD's budget numbers remain tentative pending state-certified attendance numbers, confirmed district tax appraisals, and the completion of committee and trustee review, which must be finalized before September.

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