Friday, June 10, 2005

Schools prepare for hard choices

Most jobs are safe, but schools say there's no room for major upgrades
* Complete Legislature coverage
By Jason Embry
Wednesday, June 8, 2005

Local schools will have enough money to preserve the status quo over the next year, but educators say any costly efforts to reduce class sizes or overhaul classroom programs will have to wait.

The collapse of school finance reform efforts at the end of the legislative session last month left schools with the money they need to pay for expected enrollment growth over the next two years but without the $3 billion that key lawmakers had hoped to deliver. Schools will see some revenue bump as their property tax bases grow, but that growth is expected to be modest in some Central Texas districts.

So as school board members sit down this summer to develop budgets for the upcoming year, they'll find little new money to spend on an education system that a state judge has deemed unconstitutional because of underfunding.

"It would be very difficult to increase staffing at schools beyond what's already out there," said Larry Throm, the Austin school district's chief financial officer.

Gov. Rick Perry could call a special session to give the Legislature another try at the issue, but it would have to start soon to affect the upcoming school year.

The upside for school employees is that officials in some of the largest local districts, including Austin, Round Rock and Pflugerville, say they expect to have enough money to avoid layoffs and to replace teachers who have left their jobs. Throm said that's because inflation has little overall effect on school budgets, unless salaries increase.

He said the Austin district cannot afford to raise salaries this year but is likely to spend $6 million to continue paying all of employees' health insurance costs. Employees still will have to pay some of their own money to cover family members.

Lawmakers had discussed giving across-the-board raises of as much as $3,000 over two years, plus incentive pay for some teachers based partly on student test scores. Now it appears that the state, which ranked 32nd in average teacher pay according to a 2004 National Education Association study, will struggle to move up on that list.

"Whatever we do with salaries will determine what kind of a tax increase we have," said Carter Scherff, chief financial officer in the Hays Consolidated school district.

Hays is part of a shrinking group of districts that do not already tax at the maximum rate for maintenance and operations, which is $1.50 per $100 in assessed property valuation. Another district in that group is Pflugerville, but Gerrell Moore, assistant superintendent for finance and operations, said he expects Pflugerville to make the one-cent jump to the $1.50 rate this year.

In the Leander school district, officials plan to hire enough teachers to staff a new elementary school and to teach more than 1,000 new students. District leaders will decide in coming weeks whether to raise teacher salaries, Assistant Superintendent Bret Champion said.

Leander will have more to spend because its growing enrollment will draw more money from the state and because of a property tax base that, according to preliminary estimates, is about 10 percent higher than last year.

Eanes Superintendent Nola Wellman said her district might have to cut about 15 of its 860 jobs, which she hopes to do through attrition instead of layoffs. District residents raised some money privately this year to prevent more severe cuts, saving about 10 positions.

One reason Eanes leaders are looking at staff cuts is that they're also considering pay increases for employees. The repeated talk of higher salaries by lawmakers working on the school finance issue raised teachers' expectations for more money, Wellman said.

Local officials began planning their budgets well before the end of the legislative session, and several said they did not assume there would be much new money to spend.

School officials said throughout the legislative session that the spending increases that lawmakers proposed would have been constrained by new mandates, such as incentive pay for teachers and electronic testing.

"There were so many constraints on the money, our local trustees were given so many things that tied their hands, that it's better for us that we say, 'OK, let's start over,' " Wellman said.

One area where schools will see more money is through the Student Success Initiative, which provides extra help for students who need to pass state tests to move on to the next grade. This spring, lawmakers increased funding for that program by about $150 million over two years to prepare students for eighth-grade promotion requirements that will take effect in 2008.

Other standards, such as state graduation requirements and federal benchmarks that determine whether students can transfer out of low-performing schools, are increasing as well. For example, less than 70 percent of Texas 11th-graders passed the state graduation test on the first try this spring, and the state will make it even harder for next year's 11th-graders to pass.

"Everybody is at a disadvantage to a certain degree," said Catherine Clark of the Texas Association of School Boards. "The standards we're holding up for student performance and school improvement continue on, whether there's new money or not."; 445-3654

School spending

Central Texas school districts are bracing for minimal funding increases this year in the wake of the Legislature's failure to reform the school finance system. Below are schools' per-student spending amounts on operating expenses for the 2003-04 school year, the latest period for which complete data is available. Schools receive extra money for students who come from low-income families, for example, or who speak limited English.

School districtSpending per student
Austin $7,751
Del Valle $7,716
Eanes $7,358
Lake Travis $6,682
Manor $7,557
Pflugerville $6,362
Georgetown $7,219
Leander $6,504
Round Rock $6,826
Dripping Springs $7,044
Hays Consolidated $6,924
San Marcos $7,346

Source: Texas Education Agency

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