Naked City

Funding fireworks remain bright at AISD

AISD Superintendent Pat Forgione (l) and Education Austin President Louis Malfaro (r) are in the middle of a heated debate over the AISD budget.
AISD Superintendent Pat Forgione (l) and Education Austin President Louis Malfaro (r) are in the middle of a heated debate over the AISD budget. (Photo By John Anderson)

Anyone who thinks school board meetings are boring should switch off Fear Factor and head on down to the Austin ISD board auditorium to watch the budget debate show. AISD's trustees have before them the unpleasant job of deciding whether to approve the $755 million budget proposed by Superintendent Pat Forgione even though it includes no salary increase for teachers. The board will vote on the matter at the end of the month, and already tempers are flaring.

No one can deny that AISD is in tight financial straits. The district has been unable to raise its property tax rate past the state-defined $1.50 cap for four years; for six years all revenue increases from increased property valuations have gone straight into Texas' redistributive school finance system. Representatives of the teachers union Education Austin say, however, that AISD can still afford a raise (a 3% cost-of-living increase would run about $11 million), and they've been making their case in increasingly vitriolic terms. "Policy governance – ya! We've had it up to here," hollered Education Austin head Louis Malfaro, chopping his hand through the air near his neck. Forgione's response was equally irate: He accused the union of playing "dirty pool" and of not being so honest themselves.

The debate isn't a matter of, "We think you should cut X, Y, and Z to pay for raises" – it's much more complicated. Education Austin accuses the district of using fuzzy accounting to make its finances look tighter than they are so the district's numbers look better in its lawsuit against the school finance system, now being considered by the Texas Supreme Court. The various parties are also clashing over the nuances of who said what when, a spat similar to the one over the prevailing wage scale earlier this year: Education Austin says that when the district put forth a bond proposition to refinance some long-term debt to free up about $6 million of revenue, AISD representatives promised that money would pay for teacher raises. The district, for its part, says it promised only that the money would go toward teacher compensation – and the district considers compensation to include benefits and support. In the proposed budget, that $6 million goes toward covering increased health insurance costs and other benefits, so the district says it is fulfilling that promise. However, those who distinctly remember they heard the word "raise" during bond discussions, such as Trustee Rob Schneider, now question the district's honesty. "I do believe there has been a breach of faith," he told Forgione.

No matter how tight the finances, deciding what to fund or not fund is a matter of priorities. For example, the budget includes about $5 million in new money for "interventions" for struggling learners, a broad term that includes materials and administrative support to help struggling students pass standardized tests. To Forgione, that's money well spent. To Malfaro, programs and projects aren't nearly as important as the people in the classrooms. When school board elections come in May, Malfaro warned, voters will repay those trustees whose priorities align with their own (or not).

The next public hearing on the budget is Aug. 25; the board will vote Aug. 29.

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