With Session Over, AISD to Wrap Up Budget

Employee compensation still at issue in upcoming spending plan

AISD Trustee Amber Elenz in 2018
AISD Trustee Amber Elenz in 2018 (Photo by John Anderson)

The Austin ISD Board of Trustees on Monday, June 3, held its first budget discussion following passage of the Texas Legislature's $6.5 billion school finance plan, House Bill 3, which clarifies some of the fiscal questions facing the district. The $1.6 billion AISD budget for fiscal year 2020 has mostly been finalized, except for the (significant) question of employee compensation. District officials are set to meet today, June 6, with the Education Austin employees union to hammer out an agreement, in time for the board to approve the budget on June 18.

How much of a compensation boost AISD employees can expect, and how much of it will take the form of wages (as opposed to paid leave, retirement, or other benefits), is still unclear. Under HB 3, all school districts will receive varying amounts of new money from the state. The law requires 30% of new per-student funding be devoted to increased compensation, which for AISD will amount to about $67 million in both fiscal 2020 and 2021, when the Lege returns.

Of that, 75% must be directed toward teachers, librarians, nurses, and counselors, and HB 3 calls for raises to be weighted toward employees with more than five years of experience, though districts have leeway on how to do that. Districts can always spend more money on compensation if they desire, and Education Austin has publicly demanded a 10% pay raise for all AISD employees, which would cost the district about $58 million annually, according to Chief Financial Officer Nicole Conley.

"The affordability of 10% across-the-board is something I wouldn't recommend the district consider," Conley told trustees. "We're trying to find something reasonable and affordable within the context that we are going to get new money." Conley reminded the board that AISD still needs to close an estimated $44 million shortfall in the upcoming budget as it decides how to spend that new money, as well as noting other provisions of the HB 3 package that could lead to an ongoing $80 million decrease in state funding going forward.

Trustee Amber Elenz raised the possibility of offering one-time raises to employees, citing concerns that HB 3's funding gains may not be renewed by the next Legislature. Although the board would likely want to maintain or enhance compensation increases in future budgets, should AISD's finances become more stable, EA President Ken Zarifis is continuing to press for a 10% permanent raise. "We have to have schools that people feel safe and stable in," Zarifis told the Chronicle on Tuesday. "And the stability of a school is dependent on the stability of its workforce."

Zarifis also said trustees should not be so fearful that lawmakers will backtrack in 2021, seeing as both parties are celebrating HB 3 as a major triumph. He criticized the administration for waiting so long to enter "serious" negotiations with EA, saying district officials canceled two meetings following sine die to discuss compensation. "We will continue to fight for a 10% pay raise, but we will also sit down in earnest on how to create a path forward," Zarifis said.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Austin Independent School District, AISD, Board of Trustees, 86th Texas Legislature, House Bill 3, School Finance, Education Austin, Nicole Conley, Amber Elenz, Ken Zarifis

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