Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Texas Education Agency layoffs begin

Officials won't confirm numbers, but past state budget history could signal losses in the hundreds.

Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2011

The Texas Education Agency laid off an unspecified number of its 1,054 employees Tuesday, with Education Commissioner Robert Scott releasing a brief statement acknowledging the beginning of a process that could reduce the agency's staff by hundreds.

"Based on the impending budget reductions, we have taken steps to reduce the size of the agency. We will continue our mission to serve our school districts and students," he said.

The final tally of axed employees will be determined in the Legislature's final appropriations bill. Texas' 2003 budget shortfall — about $10 billion — resulted in 200 TEA layoffs, and this year, lawmakers are attempting to close a gap of $15 billion to $27 billion.

Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the agency, described the mood as "very somber" around the William B. Travis Building, where the bulk of TEA employees work.

She declined to give specifics on the number of state employees or positions that were eliminated, saying the agency was informing employees individually. Exact numbers would probably be available later this week, she said.

At the beginning of 2010, Gov. Rick Perry and legislative leaders asked all state agencies to reduce their costs by 5 percent. In December, they requested that agencies find an additional 2.5 percent of their budgets to cut. Tuesday's layoffs are the latest development in a budget crisis that could cut up to 9,600 state jobs before all is said and done.

TEA has cut about $153 million from its budget since the reduction orders were issued, Ratcliffe said, but Tuesday's layoffs were the first significant hit for the agency since 2003. Ratcliffe said these layoffs are not so much part of Perry's belt-tightening request but rather "more in anticipation of what's to come."

"We know that this may not be the end of it, depending on what happens with the budget," Ratcliffe said.

Other state agencies are feeling similar budget pain. The Department of Information Resources cut 22 positions in late January. The Department of Criminal Justice will cut 555 positions by April 15, with notifications to employees beginning next week, agency officials said. Depending on the final budget, as many as 1,200 more jobs could be eliminated from the state's correctional agency.

TEA, which serves as a guiding force and administrative hub for public education statewide, is cutting positions as school districts are also preparing for big cuts to teachers and other personnel. On Monday night, the Austin school district upped its estimate of those to be laid off, bringing its potential job losses to more than 1,100.

"There's probably some sentiment that if school districts are going to be hit, then the state education agency also needs to get leaner," said Andy Homer, director of government relations for the Texas Public Employees Association.

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