Money Makes AISD's World Go Round

Policy questions at Austin ISD are increasingly being answered by the district's fiscal crunch.

AISD Superintendent Pat Forgione
AISD Superintendent Pat Forgione (Photo By John Anderson)

"None of the choices are pleasant." Austin ISD spokesman Andy Welch was describing the district's ongoing budget deliberations, but he could as well be discussing virtually every decision AISD makes for the next couple of years. It's no secret that Texas schools, like the rest of the public sector, are strapped for cash. The Austin district enters its budget season with steadily declining revenues and few prospects for additional funding sources.

As summarized by Welch, the 2002-03 overall AISD budget is approximately $706 million, but that includes $144 million that must be returned to the state under the school finance equity law ("Robin Hood"). For 2003-04, barring extremely unlikely relief from the Legislature, AISD's Robin Hood obligation will jump to $169 million. The combination of that increasing obligation and declining property-tax revenues are expected to create a shortfall next year of $59 million.

"Right now, the approach is a logical progression in cutting expenses," said Welch. "The superintendent first froze hiring for all nonteaching vacancies [in early January]. Then the audit report [a district-commissioned report issued Jan. 16 by Gibson Consulting Group] made recommendations for an administrative reorganization that has the potential of $1 million in central-office savings. The next step will have to be classroom related ... because $300 million of the budget is classroom elated, everything from teacher salaries to supplies. But we don't know what those cuts will be yet."

The Gibson audit has proposed staff cuts and reorganizations that would effectively eliminate 13 executive positions. AISD Superintendent Pat Forgione says he doesn't yet know which of the recommendations he will accept but told reporters, "I will find a million dollars [in cuts]." On Tuesday, Forgione released suggestions for closing the $59 million gap, including eliminating hundreds of teaching positions, and appointed a 28-member budget task force "to address the areas where he's going to propose reductions" and to make recommendations to the public and the AISD board of trustees.

In the meantime, the budget situation clouds every discussion of AISD programs. Last week, for example, the district held public forums to discuss the (unfunded) state mandate to increase the amount of physical education in elementary schools. The administration has proposed cutting back on arts and music instruction and shifting those resources to P.E. At the forums, noted Welch, "Overwhelmingly, the people that showed up were the art and music people," who deplored cuts in those areas. The district's Student Health Advisory Council is trying to come up with an alternative solution, but Welch emphasized, "It has to be revenue-neutral, and we can't take the resources out of the core curriculum." In other words: None of the choices are pleasant. And the district finds itself more and more-often forced to save some programs at the direct expense of others.

On another front, last fall the district appointed task forces to explore adding a sixth grade at Kealing Junior High and expanding the existing sixth grade at Martin Middle School. Both proposals would call for eliminating sixth grade at some or all of the elementary feeder schools for the two Eastside campuses. The Martin task force recommended that three schools (Allan, Metz, and Govalle) move their sixth-graders to Martin, while Zavala and Allison (in accordance with strong neighborhood sentiment) would retain their sixth grades. The AISD board is expected to approve those recommendations Monday night. At that same meeting it will also receive the report of the Kealing task force, which is expected to recommend a sixth grade (and expanding Kealing's magnet program to sixth grade, as well) despite considerable opposition from parents at Kealing feeder schools, particularly Lee and Maplewood elementaries. The district argues that a Kealing Middle School will have greater resources to serve the needs of all sixth-graders; parents believe their children are better served at their neighborhood schools. Opposed parents also cite research showing that at-risk elementary students particularly suffer from an early move to middle school.

Thus far, the administration has treated those objections like old news. Of 74 AISD elementaries, only 15 retain a sixth grade; with the Martin changes the total will drop to 12. The district has acknowledged that its Kealing plans are motivated, in part, by west-side parents' complaints that their magnet-bound children must change schools twice in two years -- spending sixth grade at another middle school like O.Henry before moving to seventh at Kealing. Parents at the 12 remaining K-6 elementaries fear it's only a matter of time before the district moves all sixth-graders to middle schools, although AISD promises that "as long as the enrollment maintains a 20-1 teacher-student ratio" no classes will be abolished.

In any case, Kealing is already overcrowded and would have to expand to accommodate a sixth grade -- and the district currently has neither the land nor the money to add those classrooms. Whatever the task-force recommendation, says Welch, "the change at Kealing could not happen before the fall of 2004," simply for lack of funds. It may also depend on a possible bond election next spring, since the district has 18 other schools at capacity in growing neighborhoods.

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Austin ISD, AISD, Andy Welch, Gibson Consulting Group, recapture, Robin Hood, Pat Forgione, Student Health Advisory Council, Kealing Junior High, Martin Middle School

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