Final Blow: AISD Approves Job Cuts
Days numbered for hundreds of teachers, staff
The Austin Independent School District board of trustees Monday gave final approval to a reduction of force, or RIF, which will leave the district with 1,153 fewer classroom, support, and administrative employees next school year.
A divided board split three different ways on three different measures, all of which take effect at the end of the current school year: one letting current contracts expire without renewal, a second terminating existing contracts, and a third letting go of staff coming to the end of their three-year probationary contract period. At-large trustee Annette LoVoi voted against every proposal; she picked up fellow at-large trustee Tamala Barksdale for the first two votes, with District 7's Robert Schneider joining their opposition to terminating existing contracts. (Trustee Sam Guzman was absent due to prior commitments)
The RIF and its resultant layoffs have been sold by the administration as a necessary cost-cutting exercise to fill the predicted $94 million budget gap. However, LoVoi said she was concerned many jobs on the list were being culled to make way for a reorganization that will create new positions. If the district were serious about cost-cutting, she added, there are other places to look before sacking staff. In a not-too-subtle dig at administrative perks, she told Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, "Car bonuses add up to teacher salaries." So far, 361 staff members on the layoff list have either quit, retired, or been rehired to vacant positions elsewhere in the district. Yet the board vote means further serious, districtwide cuts. LoVoi said, "This is too big a bite, and it hurts the classroom."
In a separate matter later in the evening, the board formally received the final draft recommendations from AISD's Facility Master Plan Task Force, although "received" overstates what happened. There was no presentation by staff or task force members and no action by the board. Of the 72 original task force members, only a handful turned up Monday. Out of its leadership, only co-Chair Richard Frazier was present. His fellow co-Chair Janet Mitchell was absent, and there was no representation from lead consultants DeJong Richter.
The document, mixing broad-stroke recommendations and specific campus analyses, had barely changed since the draft presented to trustees on Feb. 28. While the board went to great pains to thank the task force for its work, the board conceded that the process is incomplete. Downgrading public expectations, board President Mark Williams called the document "a report. It's not the final plan." It now goes to Carstarphen to be turned into executive recommendations. Task force member and city council candidate Kathie Tovo called that "the right thing, because she will now go back to the community and work with them and really explore the options." However, even that may be too much for some members of the community. Save Austin Schools, the pressure group formed in response to early task force proposals to close nine AISD campuses, had called for the report's complete rejection. During citizens' communication, Barton Hills Elementary School parent Jason Sabo told the board that the community has "dissected, inspected, and thoroughly rejected this report." He recommended that the board follow suit. He added: "Good data will build public confidence. The knowing use of bad data will have exactly the opposite effect."
It is the data that's now in question, most particularly the facilities condition index, or FCI. This scale indicates how badly a building is in need of repair: the higher the score, the worse the deferred maintenance. Parents at many schools have questioned the numbers produced by Magellan Consulting. While all board members voiced their own concerns about the accuracy of the FCI numbers, Williams nixed the idea of dumping the report. Incomplete as this guiding document may be, he said, "We need a 10-year facility master plan," and this will serve as a starting point.
Aside from evidentiary concerns from the community, some members of the task force have publicly disagreed with its core findings. While the final report does not name any specific campuses for closure, it still recommends that eight elementaries and one middle school be closed or consolidated, and it still contains the same campus-by-campus FCI data that led to the original list of nine city center schools being circulated (see "Closing Schools Won't Fix AISD Budget," Jan. 21). Before the meeting, the board received a supplemental report, authored by five task force members including Tovo, savaging the whole idea of cost-saving through shutting campuses. Between academic disruption and collapsing property values, the authors wrote, "An abundant body of research has identified the deleterious effects of school closures on students, families and communities."
The district now faces a two-fold task: prevent the document from becoming an $850,000 white elephant while doing damage control on the bad publicity it has produced. Aside from instructing Carstarphen to examine the FCI data, board Vice President Vince Torres challenged her to ensure that the final recommendations mesh with the district's strategic plan. As it stands, he said, the two documents are disconnected, making it hard to know which are real priority repairs. The one undeniable fact, Torres said, is that "every campus in the district needs significant attention," and the district will need to hold a bond election "sooner rather than later."
The PR debacle could be harder to fix than any broken walls. Even though the report no longer names any specific campuses for closure, the supplemental report authors wrote that the earlier publication of a potential kill list "has already resulted in some destabilizing of the campuses in question." Both of the district's at-large trustees, Barksdale and LoVoi, voiced concerns that the district had alienated parents and teachers just when they needed their support most. LoVoi dubbed the process "too harsh and too divisive" and added that it caused "more dissension than was necessary."