The Austin Chronicle

AISD's Next Step After Exigency?

By Richard Whittaker, March 4, 2011, News

It's taken her a year, but on March 1, Austin ISD Superintendent Meria Carstarphen got what she wanted: a vote of financial exigency from her board of trustees. Yet while the board approved the measure 7-2, it remains to be seen whether it will approve the next step – slashing 1,153 jobs to help solve the budget gap.

The vote came after midnight in a meeting that had started on Feb. 28 in a packed board room. After swiping at the local media for confusing Austinites about the evening's agenda, Carstarphen and her staff stressed one point: Voting on exigency does not mean that the board is cutting jobs. Instead, it simply gives them the legal cover to terminate positions as a reduction in force, or RIF, if they so choose. A year ago, the board rejected Carstarphen's first request for exigency. Now, with a projected $94 million shortfall, Trustee Tamala Barksdale told her fellow board members "the evidence is very clear, we're there." Yet Barksdale and fellow at-large Trustee Annette LoVoi voted against the exigency resolution. Along with Education Austin, they proposed pushing the vote back to allow for more discussion. LoVoi said she feared the board was rushing to a decision with too many unanswered questions about the next step. She said, "[reorganization] and program change ... do not fit the legal definition of exigency."

If the purpose of the meeting was to set the board members' minds at rest about staff cuts, they were instead confronted with the brutal reality of what they were considering. The tone was set when Webb Middle School library clerk Catharine Sonnenberg told them, "I have been RIF'd." Other staff and parents talked about the damage to students if the district lays off teachers or technology support staff or special education teaching assistants. Gorzycki Middle School student Ty Tuttle told the board that his class will be "out of luck and abandoned" without its solitary German-language teacher. There was also tension about who did not get to speak. Even though the crowd flowed out of the door, the board stuck to its prearranged limit during citizens' communication of 30 speakers with two minutes each. Board President Mark Williams and Education Austin co-President Rae Nwosu clashed when he refused to let her cede some of her time to one of her members. "That's why we need time for a second community conversation," Nwosu tersely told trustees.

The board is expected to vote on the RIF on March 28. However, LoVoi convinced the board to agree to discuss alternatives to forced redundancies at its March 7 meeting. There was general consensus that, when the trustees return, they expect the RIF list to look different. Trustee Robert Schneider was particularly concerned that plans to cut certain sports and language programs completely rather than sharing the pain were as damaging as having released the list of positions up for RIF'ing. "It wasn't meant to target individuals," he said, "but it seems to me that's exactly what it has done."

The situation with the published RIF list echoes that of the nine schools discussed for closure by the Facility Master Plan Task Force: Adopted or not, the names are out there. While district legal counsel Mel Waxler told the board that nothing so far is binding, staff have already been contacted by human resources, and the RIF list is getting longer. The first-draft calculation on the morning of Feb. 11 was for 1,012 jobs; by the formal announcement that evening, it had reached 1,017. Since then, it has ballooned across successive board meetings from 1,014 to a new high of 1,153 during the exigency vote. That's a 14% increase in less than a month.

As the board prepares to examine why those numbers keep rising, they are also pondering deeper questions about the district's spending priorities and its revenue sources. While there was little discussion of any cash from the Legislature, Schneider noted that there is a chance that state funding could be revived. "Bottom line," he told the board, "those guys want to get re-elected."

Meanwhile, protesters at the meeting questioned why the district is pushing ahead with new construction, like a new school bus parking lot on Bluff Springs Road, when those projects will only raise operating costs. The district also faces some serious structural issues: When Carstarphen announced her original RIF list, board Vice President Vince Torres said he was surprised that so many campus-level teaching and support positions were funded by grants and one-off investments like the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. While Carstarphen has told the board that she wants the district to get better and more prolific at writing grant applications, trustees are concerned that the grants may mask economic realities. In the case of the RIF, Torres said, "Even though we save money by eliminating those grant-funded positions, we really need to be looking at the locally funded positions, because that's what we're losing from the state."

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