AISD: Low-Budget Wrassling Resumes

Budgeting for public education always involves struggles between competing needs, but these days the competition is particularly fierce

The Austin ISD community has barely begun debating the district's proposed $755 million budget, and already district officials and the teachers union are having a hard time playing nice. Budgeting for public education always involves struggles between competing needs, but these days the competition less resembles a jolly afternoon among the croquet wickets than it does, say, a rugby match in a thunderstorm, perhaps while being stalked by wild dogs.

The main source of contention is teacher pay. AISD says it just can't afford a raise, while Education Austin, the teachers union, argues that the money is there if AISD can find the will to spend it. And before the board of trustees can approve the budget – a decision scheduled for August – members must weigh these arguments within the context of a state school finance system that everyone wants to replace, but no one seems able to agree how. Under that system, AISD's property taxes are capped at $1.50 per dollar of assessed values, and have been for four years. Meanwhile, as a "property-wealthy" district, AISD must send part of its revenues back to the state for less-wealthy districts, so that even if property appraisal increases bring in more tax revenue, that money isn't necessarily AISD's to keep.

If the school finance debacle is the thunderstorm, AISD's educational challenges are the wild dogs. Students must pass state and federal tests, the bars of which are set a little higher each year. Meanwhile, the proportion of AISD's students that are poor or bilingual – and therefore in need of more services and costing more to educate – is rising. "We're all in a very challenging situation," said Superintendent Pat Forgione. "We don't have adequate funding for high standards for all our kids."

Education Austin, however, says it's a little more complicated. Seizing upon Forgione's repeated reference to AISD as the "poster child" of the school funding crisis, the union assigns sinister motives to his proposal to keep salaries as flat as the Panhandle. AISD, they argue, is stiffing teachers in a "corrupt and cynical ploy" to strengthen its lawsuit against the state, now before the Supreme Court. "It doesn't look good to give a pay raise to teachers when you're going up against the state in court," said Education Austin head Louis Malfaro.

As the union sees it, the district has plenty of new revenue to cover a raise. A 3% across-the-board increase would cost about $11 million. The district can expect an additional $28 million from rising local property values, plus $4 million in state funds to cover a growth of nearly 1,000 new students, and debt refinancing that will bring in another $6 million. The group also says that the proposed budget includes "padding" – line items that the district doesn't actually intend to spend, so that the money will be left over at the end of the year. For example, Malfaro questions why the district is budgeting 113 new teachers for only 1,000 new students, which on the surface looks like a student-teacher ratio of an unrealistic 10-to-one.

"We take a look at projected students and the schools they're probably going to appear in, and then we staff according to a formula," responds AISD human resources director Michael Hauser. He added that not all the new positions are required by student growth – some are motivated by curricular changes, such as five new career and technology positions associated with high school redesign. In fact, the district says, only 70 of the new positions are for regular classroom teachers, with others going toward special ed, fine arts, bilingual, and other programs.

Quarrels over line items aside, the most challenging question is whether trustees should slice into that $28 million property tax pie. (Education Austin charges that the number is more like $40 million; the final number won't be known until appraisals are certified later this month). After all, no matter how much money rising property values bring AISD this year, under recapture, every dollar of that increase must go to the state. And as if to add insult to injury, that payment isn't due until next year – in the meantime, the money will sit there in the budget, wafting tempting, green aromas. If trustees hear Education Austin's pleas and put that money toward a raise, they may have trouble next year if property taxes don't continue to go up, and that $28 million bill to the state comes due. "It's risky," said trustee Mark Williams. "If appraisals are flat next year, we'll still have to give the state the money. Then we'll have to cut something." As the district sees it, on balance this year's budget is slightly tighter than last year's.

Even without the pay increase, AISD's proposed budget only balances because it pulls $13 million out of its fund balance, essentially a savings account. Last year, the district used about $18 million of the fund balance to cover a 5% across-the-board pay raise, but the district can't drain its savings account indefinitely.

If AISD teachers start the year with flat pay, they won't be alone. Dallas teachers are in the same boat. Houston teachers got a 2% raise, but only because the district cut counseling services and a program to send inner-city kids to camp. And, for all the problems faced by urban, property-wealthy districts that have to give away revenue to the state, Wayne Pierce of the Equity Center says the property-poor schools that receive funds from the redistributive school finance system are in even worse shape. "The problem is that the whole system is underfunded," he said. "When it gets to the point that our wealthy districts are in real financial strain, one can only imagine the desperate situation faced by schools funded at lower levels."

As budget negotiations wind toward what will no doubt be a high-drama conclusion in August, many in the AISD community will continue to urge trustees to comb through the numbers for elusive dollars or innovative solutions. Speaking at a recent budget hearing packed with concerned teachers and parents, parent Phil Bunker said that taking care of employees is the only way to get the educational outcomes the district wants. "The happier [teachers] are, the better paid they are, the better your test scores are," he said.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

AISD Education, AISD budget, Mark Williams, Phil Bunker, Wayne Pierce, Pat Forgione, Education Austin

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