'The Perfect Storm': AISD Board Adds by Subtracting

The Austin ISD board of trustees passes its 2003-04 budget.

Education Austin President Louis Malfaro asked AISD trustees not to leave your employees with less money in their paychecks than they got last year.
Education Austin President Louis Malfaro asked AISD trustees not to "leave your employees with less money in their paychecks than they got last year." (Photo By John Anderson)

On Monday, by a 6-3 vote, the Austin ISD board of trustees approved the administration's 2003-04 operating budget, which will spend $663 million, on revenues of $633 million, drawing down $30 million from AISD's reserve fund for the difference. (The budget also includes $158 million to pay the district's school-equity recapture obligation to the state, an increase of $13.4 million from last year.)

Despite expressions of dissatisfaction from the dais and strong criticism from teachers, the board signed off on the administration's recommendation of an overall pay increase averaging 1.2% ($410 annually per employee): 1.03% for teachers, 1.77% for classified staff, and .67% for administrators. In its last week of meetings, the board restored $1.68 million for the Account for Learning program to hire parent specialists at 56 targeted schools, bringing that allocation to $41,000 per campus. "We are pleased that the board decided to restore the full amount we requested for Account for Learning," said Ofelia Zapata of Austin Interfaith, a community organization that advocates for public schools. "We fought hard to get that money restored."

Zapata added that Interfaith had also supported larger raises for faculty and staff, a wish that went unfulfilled. Indeed, it might be said that this year's final budget expenditures are in part the requisitioned gifts of district employees. The Legislature balanced the state budget partly by slashing public school employees' health care stipends by $500 to $1,000 per employee, then appropriated $1.2 billion in "new" money to school districts. AISD took its $10.2 million portion, added (this week) $2.7 from the fund balance, and spent $4.4 million on salaries and the rest on other priorities: class-size reduction in the 10th and 11th grades ($2.68 million), increased employee health care costs ($1.74 million), the AFL restoration ($1.68 million), and two new initiatives for a bilingual/immigrant program and for reading intervention in middle schools ($2.4 million). "We know this is the hardest job you do all year," Education Austin President Louis Malfaro told the board, "but it seems that we [the teachers and staff] got taxed, and you took the money and spent it on other things."

At Monday's meeting, as at the Aug. 21 public budget hearing, almost all of those giving public testimony supported raises for teachers and employees greater than the 1.5% (plus .5% to cover insurance increases) initially proposed by the administration. Most were members of Education Austin, the teacher and staff union, and they argued that higher raises were necessary just to hold employees harmless from the Lege's cuts to the health care stipend (plus a $100 increase in the retirement contribution). Alex Hendrex, a 10-year teacher at Kealing Junior High, asked the board to "make a decision based on values," and argued there is enough money in the district's reserve fund to pay for the 3.5% raises proposed by EA. Another EA member, Wayne Bowen, said that the board's "recognitions" for outstanding employees are appreciated, but "a pat on the back doesn't put food on the table." Bowen argued that the reserve-fund balance is "bloated," and called the 3.5% EA proposal "conservative and fiscally responsible."

Malfaro said Monday that EA and teachers generally support programs like Account for Learning, and that in its financial decisions the board should not be pitting teachers against the programs for kids. "You can't leave your employees with less money in their paychecks than they got last year," Malfaro told the board. EA proposed that the district dip further into its fund balance, currently at a historic high of $92 million, but administrators responded that to use more than $30 million in savings is an unacceptable risk that would endanger AISD's bond ratings. "The board agreed to spend $30 million on an emergency basis," said Chief Financial Officer Larry Throm. "I can't recommend taking any more money from the fund balance in tough times." The union replied that the district's financial estimates have been wrong in the past -- calling it a game of "hide the money" -- and EA Vice-President Bruce Banner told the board, "Do not subordinate students, faculty, and staff to the fund balance."

The three trustees who voted against the budget (Ingrid Taylor, Ave Wahrmund, and Robert Schneider) criticized not only the low salary increases but what they believe was an inadequate process that provided the board with insufficient or untimely information. Even the board members who voted to approve the budget expressed unhappiness with the available choices. President Doyle Valdez said the district has encountered a "perfect storm" of a topped-out tax rate, dropping property values, and increasing recapture costs. Trustee John Fitzpatrick called the district's predicament a consequence of the "failure of leadership at the federal and state level," for which district personnel and the whole community are paying the bill. Fitzpatrick said he was "disheartened" by the tenor of the comments from faculty and staff, concluding, "I hope we can rebuild the trust that has been lost over the last year."

AISD got $10.2 million in "extra" funding from the state and then added $2.7 million from its own fund balance; here's how the board apportioned the money in the budget they passed Monday.

Salary increases $4.40 M

Class-size reduction $2.68 M

Employee health care costs $1.74 M

Account for Learning restoration $1.68 M

New initiatives $2.40 M
(Bilingual/immigrant program, and middle school reading intervention)

Total $12.90 M

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Austin ISD, AISD, school budget, Account for Learning, Ofelia Zapata, Austin Interfaith, AFL, Education Austin, Louis Malfaro, Alex Hendrex, Wayne Bowen, Larry Throm, Bruce Banner, Ingrid Taylor, Ave Wahrmund, Robert Schneider, Doyle Valdez, John Fitzpatrick

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