Yesterday's House Appropriations Hearing on Article III revealed Commissioner Scott's restoration requests (what we can expect him to expend political capital to fight for) though even he admits it's not enough.
Add to this scarce projections on how district and school budgets will be impacted with the transition to the STAAR system and the HB 3 mandates.
By JAMES C. McKINLEY
February 14, 2011
HUTTO, Tex. — The school superintendent in this rural town outside the state capital has taken steps to trademark the district’s oddly un-Texan school mascot — the Hutto Hippo — in a frantic effort to raise cash. He is also planning to put advertisements on school buses and to let retailers have space on the school Web site.
“I’m doing some weird stuff in the district because we are low on money,” said the superintendent, Douglas Killian, sitting in an office full of Hippo figurines.
He added, “We hope to make our hippo as recognizable as Mickey Mouse.” (The mascot was adopted shortly after a hippopotamus escaped from a circus train in 1915 and took up temporary residence in a local creek.)
But the money expected from the sale of “Hustling Hippos” merchandise would be peanuts compared with the hole expected to open up in the district’s budget, as the Legislature moves to slash about $4.8 billion in state aid to schools over two years to close a budget gap.
So Mr. Killian and the beleaguered school board have agreed to shut down a recently built grade school and to cut a 10th of the staff, among them a principal, 2 assistant principals, 4 librarians and 38 teachers. That round of staff cuts is a just first step, he says, and layoffs will follow if the budget bills proposed in the Legislature are enacted without changes.
All across Texas, school superintendents are bracing for the largest cuts to public education since World War II, and the state is not alone. Schools across the country are in trouble as billions in emergency stimulus grants from the federal government have run out, and state and federal lawmakers have interpreted the victory of fiscal hawks in November’s midterm elections to mean that tax increases are out of the question.
Nowhere has that political trend been more potent than in Texas, where Republicans who ran on a promise to never raise taxes not only retained every statewide office, but also added to their majorities in both houses of the Legislature.
Gov. Rick Perry, easily re-elected in November, made it clear in his annual speech to lawmakers last week that he regarded raising revenue for schools as out of the question, saying Texas families “sent a pretty clear message with their November votes.” He has also refused to consider using $9.4 billion in a reserve fund to bail out the schools.
“They want government to be even leaner and more efficient,” Mr. Perry said, “and they want us to balance the budget without raising taxes on families and employers.”
To balance the budget with cuts alone, the governor and Republican leaders in the Legislature have put forth bills that would reduce the state’s public school budget by at least 13 percent — nearly $3.5 billion a year — and would provide no new money to schools for about 85,000 new students that arrive in Texas every year. School administrators predict that as many as 100,000 school employees would have to be laid off to absorb the cuts.
Not only are the proposed cuts to school aid draconian, but in addition the Legislature in 2006 put strict limits on how much districts can raise local property taxes. That means local school boards find themselves trapped amid rising enrollment, double-digit drops in state aid and frozen local taxes.
Many school administrators attribute the current budget crisis to an overhaul of the school finance system five years ago, which Mr. Perry and Republican leaders pushed through in response to popular anger over high property taxes. The Legislature put a cap on property taxes for schools and promised to make up the difference with a new business tax. But that tax has never produced enough revenue to make the districts’ budgets whole.
The chronic shortfall in money for schools was papered over in the last two-year budget passed in 2009. Mr. Perry and Republican leaders in the Legislature used about $3.3 billion in federal aid under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to plug the hole. That aid has disappeared this year.
“We had a problem before the shortfall ever occurred,” said John M. Folks, the superintendent of Northside Independent School District in San Antonio. “Now we have put this shortfall on top of an already horrible funding situation.”
Mr. Folks said the proposed budget bills would require him to cut about a sixth of his budget, and he sees see no way to avoid laying off teachers and letting classes become larger.
That view was echoed by administrators in districts large and small, from tiny rural districts with one high school and a six-man football team to the giant urban districts in Houston and Dallas.
In Austin, school administrators on Friday recommended in a letter to the school board that 1,000 jobs — roughly 8 percent of the work force — be cut to balance the budget, while in Dallas officials on Thursday proposed cutting about 4,000 positions.
Terry Grier, the superintendent in Houston, said the city stood to lose 15 percent to 20 percent of its total budget. The district could still raise the local property tax rate a few cents and stay under the state-imposed cap, but it would produce nowhere near enough to cover the loss of state money, Mr. Grier said. One way to cushion the blow, he said, would be to lift state rules on class size and to let administrators single out unproductive teachers for layoffs, regardless of their seniority. “Let us get out from under some of these state mandates,” he said.
Even relatively wealthy suburban districts are in trouble. Officials in the Clear Creek Independent School District south of Houston, which serves the communities around NASA, estimate they would have to cut about 975 jobs — about a fifth of the work force. Like most other administrators, Superintendent Greg Smith is urging the Legislature to tap into the Rainy Day Fund instead of making the cuts. “It’s not raining,” he said. “It’s pouring.”
On Thursday night in Hutto, two school board members wept as they read the motion to close Veterans’ Hill Elementary School, a sleek building that opened in 2008 amid wheat fields and horse paddocks.
“In the 10 years I’ve been on this board, this is the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make,” said Sheila Knapp, the board’s vice president. “I’m very angry with the Legislature for putting us in this position and affecting our kids this way.”
Michele Bischoffberger, the principal at Veterans’ Hill, said the school was built just before the economic downturn, when Hutto was growing rapidly as developers built suburbs for workers at high-tech companies around Austin.
“All this land out here was supposed to be houses, but when the crash came, that didn’t happen,” Ms. Bischoffberger said, gesturing at nearby fields.
She recounted wistfully how she helped design the school, insisting on elements like a large gymnasium and a computer lab. “It’s your baby,” she said. “Being a new principal, this is where you get to make your dreams come true. It’s going to be hard to walk away.”
The 475 children at the school will be divided among the district’s other four elementary schools, and the entire fifth grade will be moved to the two middle schools to make room. The shuttered school — with its library, computer lab and state-of-the-art classrooms — will be mothballed or rented out to a community college, Ms. Bischoffberger said.
Plans to start a garden to be used as an outdoor classroom this spring have been scotched, killing a long-held dream for Vanessa Henson, a kindergarten teacher who had raised money from local businesses for the project.
“I don’t know about the politics,” Ms. Henson said, breaking into tears. “I just know something went awry.”
Some young teachers and support staff members said they were uneasy, since it was unclear if they would have jobs in September. Sharon Case, the school librarian, is among those whose job is on the line. She has two children in college and works nights as a cashier at Wal-Mart.
“I’m just doing a lot of praying and depending on God to know where I’m supposed to be,” Ms. Case said.