Naked City

Budget Blues

June may be a great time to be a teacher, but it's a lousy time to be an AISD administrator. Down at central office, those long summer days mean not beaches and barbecues, but budgets. And in Texas right now, that means tight budgets: The district reached its state-mandated property tax cap four years ago and cannot raise local taxes; the Legislature failed to fix a school finance system that has AISD sending $136 million to other districts; and new legislation just shifted greater teacher retirement and health insurance costs to local districts. Meanwhile, the percentages of AISD students who are poor or immigrants – and who therefore require extra services that make them more expensive to educate – continues to rise.

When Superintendent Pat Forgione on Monday night presented his recommended budget to the board of trustees, who have ultimate authority over its contents, he was careful to run through this bleak context before unloading what many will consider the really bad news – there's no money in the $755 million budget for teacher raises. He pointed out, however, that the budget includes $6 million to cover teacher health insurance increases, and $540,000 for retirement. Admitting that the $6.5 million could have instead been put toward a 2% raise, Forgione said the move is strategic. That is, the district hopes the Legislature will make good on its promise to come up with a school finance plan that includes across-the-board raises, so teachers will end up with both higher salaries and full health insurance.

"We knew the Legislature would never do health insurance," said Forgione. "If they did anything, it would be teacher salaries."

Even without raises, the recommended budget only balances because the district has proposed pulling $13 million out of its fund balance, which is basically a savings account. The fund balance was at about $100 million before AISD decided to pull $37 million out last year, in part to cover teacher raises. Unless the Lege changes the school finance system in a way that increases AISD's revenues, Forgione warned that next year AISD would have to pull another $13 million out to meet its 2006-07 budget. After that, he said, the balance would be down to about $40 million – below the board of trustees' target minimum of $50 million – and the district would have no choice but to cut programs that are already "down to the marrow" for the 2007-08 year. "If you don't have the dollars, you've got to say that something's not important, and golly, it's all important," Forgione said.

At Monday night's presentation, trustees indicated a desire to scrounge around for money for raises. The budget does include about two dozen minor spending increases – most well under $1 million – that will go toward software, nurses, moving portables, and other minor needs. Nearly $2 million will go to "interventions" to help struggling learners pass state-mandated tests. Because the presentation was the first time both trustees and school watchdogs like Education Austin had seen budget details, however, the real debate will start next Monday, when both groups have had time to analyze the numbers and stake out their positions. Whatever those positions may be, Forgione indicated he'll stand by the district's recommended budget. "It's very tough at this point, but we need to be realistic," he said. "We need to make children a priority."

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Pat Forgione, Austin ISD, Education Austin, school finance, AISD budget

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