Is the Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door?

AISD's budget cuts could be deep and painful.

"In the long run, it's the kids that are going to suffer."

Special-education teacher Brenda Urps-Williams was speaking specifically of her own students at Paredes Middle School, as she considered the effects of just-announced Austin ISD budget proposals that would save $7.2 million by eliminating 71 special-ed teachers and 166 teaching assistants. "There's no way," she said, "we could meet the needs of these students." That truism likely applies to many of the budget cuts now officially under consideration by AISD.

The district's projected $59 million budget deficit for next year became a lot more specific last week, as Supt. Pat Forgione released his "Working Paper" on budget reductions. Forgione called his proposed cuts just "a starting point; nothing is set in concrete." The proposals have been presented to a budget task force for six weeks of review, followed by public input in early March, then formal presentation to the board of trustees.

Austin schools are not exactly overflowing with resources, and the deficit represents more than 10% of AISD's current operating budget. The proposed cuts, even in summary form, are formidable: $6.1 million from central administration, $10 million from "nonteaching" campus staff, and a whopping $17.2 million from teaching positions, including not just the special-ed reductions described above, but 99 "special area" elementary teachers: art, music, physical education. The district says those cuts, along with a $25.5 million dip into the "fund balance" (AISD's savings account), will make up next year's anticipated revenue shortfall, aggravated by an increasing state "recapture" obligation (aka "Robin Hood," under which Austin is a "rich" district) even as local property values are falling.

Some of the proposals, like travel reductions, elimination of KLRU programming, or selective cutbacks in the number of sports coaches, don't appear catastrophic, but save little money. The big-ticket cuts are striking: 62 custodial jobs ($1.3 million); library books ($500,000); Account for Learning ($4.1 million); Reading Recovery ($2.1 million); and the total elimination of an estimated 450 full- or part-time teaching jobs. Indeed, the $17.2 million "teaching" reduction category may well be understated; the district lists both the Account for Learning and Reading Recovery programs as "Campus Non-Teaching Cuts," but both directly involve teaching. "The Account for Learning program is the district's own internal equalization funding for the 54 poorest schools," said one administrator. "If we have to cut it -- even replace it with what they call 'instructional coaches' -- it will really be missed."

Debbie Hamerly, the librarian at O. Henry Middle School, has taught in AISD for over 15 years, five as a Reading Recovery teacher. "I suppose they list it as 'nonteaching' because an RR teacher works individually with only four students for 30 minutes each a day. But they're also writing flexible lesson plans for each student, they're working with classroom literacy groups, and they're able to intervene with dozens of kids who would otherwise be filling up special-ed classes because their regular teachers don't have the time to help them. They say they'll replace them with 35 'reading specialists' for 74 elementary schools. But because they'll have to move around, they'll mostly be working with teachers -- they won't be working directly with the kids." As for her already minuscule library-books fund, Hamerly says, "I guess the library will become a museum."

The administration says it has little choice -- that with the state budget already in deficit, Austin can expect little help from the Legislature and must plan accordingly. "These proposals take Austin back toward what is offered in most Central Texas districts," says AISD spokesman Andy Welch. "We have to plan conservatively for the next couple of years."

Other observers aren't so certain. "I think they're being premature," said Louis Malfaro, president of the teachers' organization Education Austin and a task-force member. "We don't know what the Legislature is going to do." Malfaro also says drawing down only $25.5 million of the fund balance -- which now stands at $80 million "plus" -- is too cautious. "What's a savings fund for, if not to tide you over the hard times?" But since the district gets virtually all its funding once a year from property taxes, counters Welch, it can't "gamble" with the fund balance and then not be able to pay the bills.

According to district figures, the projected fund balance transfer would almost exactly match the projected $25 million increase in AISD's recapture payment (estimated at $169 million, up from this year's $144 million). The district is arguing to the Lege that, in addition to being the only large urban Chapter 41 district (i.e., a "rich" district subject to recapture), it is one of only two such districts which must also pay full employee Social Security -- payments not acknowledged in the recapture formulations. Since the Social Security amount is $20 million a year, a recalculation would save the district 80% of the recapture increase -- and abruptly cut the deficit to $39 million.

Some observers suspect that Forgione is presenting a "worst-case scenario" to get the attention of local citizens, politicians, and the Chamber of Commerce. "He's kind of a dramatic guy," said someone familiar with district politics. "And he knows these kind of cuts will get people's attention." Another was less diplomatic: "He likes to lead by hysteria. All these task-force meetings and forums and headlines will draw attention to the problems, but in the end the board will come down on the side of much more realistic numbers."

Of course, AISD is not alone. Districts all across the state are having serious budget problems, a reflection of the Texas and national economies as well as the structural problems of the school-finance system. The governor and legislative leaders promise to do "something" about school finance this session -- but what that something will be may not be known before midsummer. "These are difficult times," concludes Forgione, "that require thoughtful decisions about the provision of educational services in the Austin schools."

AISD Budget Process Timeline

Jan. 21-22: Superintendent releases budget working paper; appoints task force.

Feb. 28: Budget task force makes recommendations to superintendent.

March 4-5: District holds public forums on the budget.

March 17: Superintendent presents budget recommendations to board of trustees.

March 31: Board acts on proposed budget reductions.

June 13: Preliminary 2003-2004 budget presented to board.

June 19: Public hearing on preliminary budget

Aug. 21: Public hearing on proposed final budget and tax rate

Aug. 25: Board adopts 2003-2004 budget, tax rate, and salary schedule.

AISD's Major Proposed Budget Cuts

Fund Balance Transfer: $25.5 million

Central Administration: $1.8 million

Central Office Staff and Programs: $4.3 million
Eliminate 35 jobs ($1.8 million)
Move bus purchases to 2004 bond proposal ($1.45 million)

Campus "Non-Teaching" Cuts: $10.1 million
Eliminate 62 custodial jobs ($1.3 million)
Cut library allocations ($500,000)
Reduce campus administration ($1 million)
Cut Account for Learning ($4 million)
Cut Reading Recovery ($2.1 million)

Campus Teaching Cuts: $17.3 million
Increase special-ed caseload ($3.1 million)
Increase class size for middle and high schools ($4.6 million)
Cut art/music/PE teachers ($4.4 million)
Cut special-ed assistants ($4 million)

Total Budget Adjustments: $58.9 million

Source: "Summary: Working Paper of Budget Reductions for the 2003-2004 School Year for Transmittal to the Superintendent's Task Force on Budget," Jan. 21, 2003

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