There was little romance at the Austin ISD board of trustees' Valentine's Day work session. Instead, there was a rough draft of the controversial Facility Master Plan, before Superintendent Meria Carstarphen made her pitch for financial exigency and job cuts. Yet while Carstarphen repeatedly told the board that "we are more than halfway there" on preparing the district for its upcoming starvation budget, some trustees are wondering where "there" is.
The meeting's headline event was supposed to be a board feedback session to the Facility Master Plan Task Force. Instead, the trustees let task force co-chairs Janet Mitchell and Richard Frazier, accompanied by Carolyn Staskiewicz from consultants DeJong Richter, lay out what they had with little comment. The initial draft of their report was a comparatively bloodless affair: While there are still recommendations to close some campuses, none is specifically named (see "Task Force Recommendations" for highlights). Frazier conceded that the campaigns of concerned parents undoubtedly affected the report's drafting and, he said, "the perspective changed." But even after that redirection, the body is heavily divided. At the meeting, only a handful of the task force's 63 active members showed up, and others are no longer discussing if they should file a minority report but how it should be done.
The facilities discussion, however, was overshadowed by the more pressing matter of layoffs. In total, Carstarphen proposes cutting 1,017 staff positions before the new school year, saving the district $54 million. To do so, she wants the board to declare financial exigency, giving her the legal leeway for a reduction in force. Only about half of the positions listed are teachers, but many other losses of teachers' assistants and special education staff would have a direct impact on classrooms.
Trustee Annette LoVoi, who was already concerned that the facility plan was "internally inconsistent," was even more vocal about the cuts. She argued that the list, which was only released on Feb. 11, gives the board little idea what will be left afterward, or how Carstarphen plans to restructure the district after the layoffs, retirements, and closed vacancies. It does not even show which of the positions were already eliminated under the new staffing formulas approved on Jan. 20. Before she can consider a vote, LaVoi said: "I want to see an East Austin impact document. I want to see a programmatic impact document. I want to understand, of the thousand positions, which have already been voted on and which are reorganization."
Some staff already know they're on the chopping block. While the administration's hit list does not name individual employees, since it breaks everything down by office and school, then gives the technical title for each position, anyone with an understanding of AISD bureaucracy can figure out whose jobs are on the line. Whole departments, such as the press office, are wiped out. Education Austin co-President Rae Nwosu said that some principals are acting like the cuts already have board approval. After the meeting, Nwosu said: "We heard, all day, people calling saying they were told they were on the [reduction in force] list. So for administration to say that these people have not been told yet, and they won't be told until after tonight, is incorrect."
While there will be no vote on exigency or the reduction in force until Feb. 28, the board has already scheduled an additional meeting about the layoff list for Feb. 21, for better oversight. While he conceded that the process is imperfect, board President Mark Williams said the board must do something to save money. Similarly, board secretary Lori Moya argued that the campus positions up for the axe had been proposed by their principals, and the board should trust their judgment.
LoVoi wasn't the only board member concerned about missing data, as District 7 trustee Robert Schneider quizzed Carstarphen hard about what the cuts will mean for foreign language provision. Board Vice President Vincent Torres said that until the Legislature finalizes the state budget, it will be impossible to know exactly how bad the budget crunch they're responding to will be. "That's the number that I need to have in order to feel comfortable about going forward," he said. As for the job cuts list, Torres said he was surprised by the scale, especially in central administration. Carstarphen's long-term plan is to rebuild into what Torres described as "a leaner, meaner organization with a completely different structure." Yet there is no sign of what that organization would look like, and Carstarphen told the board she won't start designing that new administrative structure until March 1 – the day after the board is scheduled to vote on the reduction in force. It is also unclear exactly how much of the $54 million saved through these proposed cuts will have to be spent on rebuilding and rehiring for the new-look AISD.
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