Education cuts decried; districts demand priority
By GARY SCHARRER
Jan. 31, 2011
AUSTIN — Some Texas school districts will have a tough time operating under the state's first budget proposal, a leading school superintendent said Monday, expressing fears that massive layoffs of support staff will make it harder to meet accountability standards.
More than half of the state's 1,030 school districts already have approved resolutions urging lawmakers to "make education a priority."
School administrators meeting here this week are warning lawmakers that they will greatly harm public education if they embrace the early budget plan cutting public education by about $10 billion from current service levels, including the cost of educating an additional 170,000 students during the next two years.
Legislative leaders say the gloom-and-doom scenario is premature as they look to free school districts of state mandates to give them more flexibility.
Millions will be lost
San Antonio's Northside Independent School District would lose about $97 million a year under the state's preliminary budget plan.
"I don't know how we could operate. When you take almost $200 million out of an (two-year) operating budget of $680 million, that's a 28.5 percent cut," said John Folks, Northside superintendent and immediate past president of the Texas Association of School Administrators.
About 85 percent of a school district budget goes for salaries.
"There is no question that we will be laying off people. Education is labor intensive, and we use people to serve kids," Folks said, predicting that academic support staff, including instruction coaches and language support teachers, will lose their jobs.
"It's that extra help that have allowed school districts all across Texas to raise student achievement and narrowing the gap. That's going away," he said. "That's one of my biggest fears. It's going to hurt student achievement as we eliminate jobs, as we raise class size."
Folks said his school district could not survive the proposed budget cuts.
"At $50,000 a pop, that's 2,000 teachers," he said of the nearly $100 million a year in cuts. "We have 7,500 teachers at Northside. We can't operate."
The concern of school administrators is legitimate, said House Public Education Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands.
"They are right to try to plan on a reduced budget. I see that as a reality," said Eissler, who sported a "Make Education a Priority" button on his coat lapel.
Most lawmakers made public schools a priority because they often are large employers, Eissler said.
"If it's a priority, they will make any cuts minimal," he said. "I want to keep the quality up in a down budget year. But there will be less money."
Proposals unite districts
The proposed budget cuts and their impact on Texas schools and communities have united school districts like never before, said Bobby Rigues, vice president of the Aledo Independent School District board of trustees.
Rigues and his colleagues launched the on-going "Make Education a Priority " campaign last summer from a tent pitched alongside a major Aledo street west of Fort Worth.
School districts are tired of fighting for fair and adequate funding, he said, noting the Texas Constitution requires the Legislature to provide a free and efficient education for all Texas children without a clause saying "unless funds are not available."
Educators do not want to lower academic standards because Texas children will have to compete on a global stage with China, India and other countries, said John Fuller, president of the Texas Association of School Administrators and superintendent of the Wylie ISD.
If lawmakers do not provide adequate funding, "we may need to slow this train down," Fuller said of new and more rigorous standards.
Giving some options
Senate Education Chair Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, and her committee today will begin looking at state mandates.
If the state does not have enough money, lawmakers should, at least, give school districts more flexibility, she said.
Shapiro called it "unacceptable" for the proposed budget not to provide money for new school textbooks.
The stars are out of alignment, she said.
"We will realign those stars in hopes that everybody will not be quite as unhappy."