The Austin Chronicle

Naked City

Room for Raises at AISD

By Rachel Proctor May, June 18, 2004, News

The $732 million budget that AISD Superintendent Pat Forgione proposed to the district's board of trustees Monday night is one that bets the lean years will soon be behind the city, and better times are on their way. In contrast to last year's budget debacle, when shortfalls caused massive staffing cuts and a de facto pay cut for teachers, this budget includes $15 million for a 5% across-the-board pay raise, plus funds for teachers' health insurance premiums.

"This is a budget that made employee compensation a priority. That's a good and a necessary thing," said Louis Malfaro, president of Education Austin, the teacher's union that has been fighting for a raise all year. However, the money for the raises, should they win board approval this August, will come out of the district's fund balance (essentially a savings account). Since cuts are politically much more difficult than raises, the ongoing cost could cause problems a few years down the road if funds remain tight.

But Forgione is optimistic that paying salaries with savings is a short-term phenomenon. He said he believes that property values – which stayed flat this year after a large drop last year – will once again rise, and that the Legislature will eventually develop a school finance plan that will reduce the funds AISD sends to the state under the recapture ("Robin Hood") system – projected to be $135 million in 2004-05. "There are times in your life when you use your savings account," said Forgione. "This is one of those times."

The budget also includes other teacher-friendly items, like $908,000 to decrease 12th-grade class sizes from 32 to 28 students and adding 6.5 "special area" (art, music, and PE) elementary teacher positions to ease overcrowding that came from cutting corners in last year's budget. The district also wants to add about 16 special education teachers, at a cost of $756,000.

More controversial are line items devoted to security: $70,000 for security cameras in buses, $105,000 for afterschool guards in middle schools, and $394,000 for one additional security staffer (either a guard or a "school resource officer") at each high school. This is on top of $19 million in security hardware that AISD hopes voters will approve in a September bond election. While there's an apparent consensus on the need for additional safety measures, during various community task force meetings this spring, critics questioned the wisdom of emphasizing cameras and badges over counseling and intervention. These debates will no doubt resurface as the trustees and district finalize the budget over the summer. The board will meet several times in June and August (but not July) to discuss the proposed budget, scheduled for a final vote Aug. 23. There will be a public hearing on the recommendations on Thursday, June 24, at 7pm.

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