Naked City

A whopping one-time $1,000 for teachers, librarians, and counselors

The AISD community can now officially stop fighting about a proposed budget for next year that includes no pay raises for teachers. Instead, members can spend the last week of the budget battle season considering a proposal Superintendent Pat Forgione released on Monday to give teachers, librarians, and counselors a one-time, $1,000 "retention stipend" at the end of the year. The stipend will cost the district an extra $5.6 million in a year in which the district is already drawing from its fund balance (essentially a savings account) to make ends meet. Given the Legislature's failure to turn the puffy clouds of teacher raise rhetoric wafting around the Capitol all year into law, Forgione said it was the right thing to do. "When I realized the Legislature now had closed and had not done anything, I knew I had to do something but it had to be a one-time something," he said.

The end of the session wasn't quite Forgione's only impetus. Teachers union Education Austin has been hammering the district to provide a raise; their tactics included newspaper ads and sending 20,000 fliers to voters in last year's bond election accusing the district of trying to wiggle out of a promise to use $6 million in savings from a debt refinancing for raises. (The district holds that it promised to use that money for teacher "compensation" – a term the district says includes benefits – and that the proposed budget fulfilled that commitment by covering a $6 million increase in health care costs. Now, Forgione insists, "I fulfilled it twice.")

Education Austin head Louis Malfaro said he welcomed the proposal but said the matter isn't quite settled yet.

"I think it's better than a stick in the eye," Malfaro said. "We're moving in the right direction. There's $5.6 million that's now on the table. The question is, what's the fairest way to allocate it?"

Malfaro named two specific criticisms: The plan includes no pay raise for support staff, and it's a one-time bonus rather than a real raise. He (along with everyone else) will have a chance to air these concerns in a final budget hearing tonight (Thursday). Raises, however, are a tricky thing in tight-budget-land: If you give them once, you pretty much have to keep giving them. If that raise is funded by a savings account, you run the risk that eventually the account runs dry. As of the end of August, AISD's fund balance should be between $55 million and $65 million; a year from now, AISD expects it to be down in the $45 million range. Malfaro says that the district could take a wait-and-see approach and declare the stipend this-year-only when it's absolutely certain that the district doesn't have the money to make it permanent. Still, AISD defends the decision. "We feel this is a fiscally responsible proposal for taxpayers, despite our difficult financial circumstances, because it is a one-time, limited draw down on the district's fund balance," explained a district statement.

During Monday's board meeting, the last before trustees vote on Aug. 29, several trustees expressed support for the stipend idea, although no one was under any illusions that it solved the district's real problems. As trustee Mark Williams put it, the idea merely "buys us a year" in which everyone can either steel themselves for the roughly $10 million in cuts AISD now expects, or, perhaps, decide to jump ship. (The terms of five of the nine trustees expire in May 2006, which could make for an interesting election season.)

The dire forecast assumes neither the courts nor the Lege will come up with a school finance plan that increases AISD's revenue. For the last year and a half, however, the quest for a better school finance system has proven as elusive as a giant squid, and just as ugly. In fact, the only changes to come in the wake of the most recent special session have been further tightening: First, the Texas Education Agency announced that new spending on textbooks would be matched with new cuts in the state's per-pupil allotments, costing AISD $4.1 million. Plus, Gov. Rick Perry issued an executive order requiring districts to spend 65% of their funds directly on classrooms, a move that education groups complain hog-ties districts' ability to pay for other necessities, like gas for the buses that get the little tykes into those classrooms in the first place. Forgione was no different. "Who came up with this 65 percent number?" he asked. "Did Moses come? Did I miss something?" The order won't phase in for several years; still, for districts looking to the state to smooth their budgetary seas, it's one more storm cloud on their perpetually gray and windy horizon.

The final budget hearing will take place Thursday, Aug. 25, at 7pm in the board auditorium at 1111 W. Sixth.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

education, Austin ISD, AISD budget, Rick Perry, Texas Education Agency, Mark Williams, Louis Malfaro

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