AISD Budget at Crunch Time

The school district prepares to finalize its 2003-04 spending plan.

Tonight (Thursday, Aug. 20) at 7pm at the Carruth Administration Center on West Sixth, the Austin ISD board of trustees will hold a public meeting on the district's proposed 2003-04 budget and tax increase. The discussion is likely to be as vexed as similar meetings being held across the city, county, and state this season. Although most of the main lines have already been laid down over the last several months, the board will formally approve the 2003-04 budget Aug. 25; still undecided is how to spend $10.2 million in "new" state money provided by the Legislature (after it had reduced teachers' health care stipend by roughly the equivalent amount, in the name of "no new taxes" -- on other people). AISD Superintendent Pat Forgione is recommending that the money be spent on class-size reduction in the 10th and 11th grades ($2.7 million, approval expected in light of poor results on the recent TAKS tests), a new bilingual education/immigrant initiative ($909,000, still up for discussion), and increases in faculty and staff health-insurance benefits ($1.8 million) and salary ($4.9 million).

Although the salary and health-insurance increase (about 2% overall) would effectively only make up for cuts already made by the state, trustees are divided over whether to give raises in the wake of eliminating some 650 jobs in the district. (Thanks to a hiring freeze in place since January, about 600 of those laid off found other AISD jobs). Forgione says that the faculty and staff deserve the raises in any case and that AISD needs to stay competitive with other Central Texas districts. "And we can't accept the blame for what the Legislature did," Forgione added. "That heat has to stay on [House Speaker Tom] Craddick."

Forgione is also likely to catch some public flak over roughly $16 million in "additional" cuts -- mostly to infrastructure, supplies, and software -- that were announced in mid-June, long after AISD's citizen budget task force had completed its work slashing major curricular programs, including art/music/P.E. classes and remedial reading. Some task-force members questioned whether they had received complete information or had been asked to endorse severe cuts that might have been ameliorated by these savings. "Those cuts would have been needed in any case," said Forgione, "and I couldn't provide that information any earlier, because it simply couldn't be known until late in the school year and the budget process."

Forgione says the district has been squeezed into a one-year problem by the simultaneous increase in school-equity recapture payments (based on last year's property values) and a precipitous drop in the current values. "Yet we still managed a budget that spends less this year than last," Forgione said, pointing to a net decrease from $524 million to $502 million. "We've been good financial stewards, and if the economy will simply hold steady, we can make it through the next year."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Austin ISD, Pat Forgione, budget, property tax rate

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