Naked City

Forgione on the Stand

Austin ISD could be the poster child for what's wrong with the current school-finance system in the state of Texas. Neither the wealthiest nor the poorest school district in the state, Austin still presents a mix of challenges that makes it one of the more interesting case studies in the current school finance case, one reason why AISD Superintendent Pat Forgione was the first witness on the stand for the plaintiffs in District Judge John Dietz's courtroom on Tuesday.

Consider the unique circumstances that Austin brings to the case: It's a school district rich in property taxes but dominated by poor, high-needs students (now 58% economically disadvantaged). State funding makes up less than 10% of the district's budget; yet Austin will send $136 million to the state this year. And it's not a school district that can boast of a lot of frills. As Forgione told Dietz, the school district does have one swim team, but it's a team without a pool.

Forgione brings something to the table, too. Once the head of the federal National Center for Education Statistics, Forgione conjures a statistician's glee when dissecting and disaggregating the test scores of his school district. What Forgione sees is a district that is making gains with children in the lower grades but losing ground in the middle schools.

Recognizing the problem is all fine and good, Forgione argues, but he doesn't have the dollars to address the needs. Hemmed in by recapture ("Robin Hood"), sinking property values, and his district's $1.50 property tax cap, Forgione could do nothing more in this year's budget than strip dollars from elementary programs and shift them to other areas of the budget this year, cutting 650 jobs in the process, many of those jobs from the district's poorest schools.

"I know what to do, but I just don't have the resources to do it," Forgione said of the budget process. "Because these kids are poor and needier, they bring more challenges, but I can't just keep piling on the dollars. I have to be very judicious in this."

But Forgione can still peg the numbers. He estimates it would take the district about $40 million, or a 10-cent increase in the tax rate, to bring all students up to grade level. He estimates the cost of the district's intervention efforts for low-performing students in middle and high schools would be around $2,000 per student.

Those numbers become more important as the state kicks in new accountability standards. Next year, students who don't pass the state-mandated Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills in reading and math in the third, fifth, and eighth grades will be retained. In Austin, that's mainly black and brown children.

But Forgione, like the other plaintiffs in the case, of course has an incentive to paint the worst possible picture of budget woes. The state, on the other hand, will argue that the situation can't possibly be that bad, because test scores in the state continue to rise each year. (The plaintiffs suggest that's because more and more low-performing students are dropping out, skewing the scores.) And besides, the state never forced Austin to put cameras on school buses, or create three magnet programs, or pay the top teacher salaries in Central Texas.

The school-finance trial will continue for at least seven weeks. Both sides have promised to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court, possibly providing lawmakers with some judicial insight before the end of the 2005 regular session.

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