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Tuesday, March 01, 2011

District in distress

Financial exigency approved

By Melissa B. Taboada and Laura Heinauer | AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Austin school district Monday night declared the district in a state of financial exigency, clearing the way for administrators to eliminate 1,153 jobs, including teaching postions and other positions under contract.

Trustees voted 7-2, with Trustees Tamala Barksdale and Annette LoVoi voting against. Officials say the fiscal crisis was brought on by anticipated cuts in state funding even as local property tax revenue continues to skid.

Board member Vincent Torres opposed an exigency declaration last year, but Monday night, he made the motion to bring it up for a vote.

"What is different tonight, a year later, is that we are considering teacher positions and teacher contracts. It is only through the termination of those teacher contracts that we can carry out the obligations and fiduciary contracts that we have as a board ," Torres said. "This is not the sort of action that any of us want to take."

The vote on exigency followed Superintendent Meria Carstarphen's presentation of her preliminary 2011-12 budget, which she started with a sober warning:

"AISD spends more money than we bring in. When we don't have enough money to pay bills, it means we have a deficit," she said. "We are cutting because we don't have enough money to run the school system the way it is."

She later called a vote for exigency "prudent and responsible."

As proposed, the $688 million 2011-12 operating budget, which will be voted on in June, would slash foreign language and athletic programs, mandate two-day unpaid worker furloughs, eliminate bonuses and increase secondary teacher workloads. No school closures are planned for 2011-12, she said.

Trustees discussed the budget and exigency until after midnight.

A vote earlier in the evening to amend staffing formulas to cut the number of special education teacher assistants and high school librarians passed 6-3 with LoVoi, Barksdale and Trustee Robert Schneider voting against.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, parents asked trustees to keep schools open and workers pleaded for their jobs. The meeting drew hundreds. Some had to watch from televisions in the courtyard as the boardroom was full.

Several were part of a group called Save Austin Schools, which opposes closing schools to help close the district's $94 million shortfall. In the budget presentation, Carstarphen told trustees that closures are not on the table for the 2011-12 school year so long as the shortfall doesn't grow.

Many members of Education Austin, which represents about 4,000 school district staff, rallied prior to the meeting as well.

Lines of people hoping to address the school board snaked outside the district's West Sixth Street headquarters early Monday. Sign-up for speaking slots, limited to 30, was full by 8:15 a.m. , district officials said.

Alan Guckian, band director at Eastside Memorial High School, was among those who spoke, telling trustees that the proposed staffing cuts under the exigency plan would cause the collapse of a growing program that some call the "backbone of school pride."

Another emotional plea came from special education teaching assistant Del Jessen, who said he and his colleagues change diapers, feed students, find students who run away and sometimes even get punched in the face in the course of their jobs.

"If you lay off 100 TAs, who is going to do these things for your students next year?" Jessen said.

Education Austin argued that though exigency might be inevitable at some point, it's not necessary right now. Co-president Ken Zarifis said the district is being inconsistent in applying the cuts and said the process has been "overly subjective."

"Slow this train down," Zarifis said. "Let's not have a wreck."

Financial experts say exigency is a budget tool that should be used as a last resort. In the past two years, more than 40 of Texas' 1,031 districts have declared exigency, according to credit rating agency Standard & Poor's.

Last week , state officials sent some reassurance to districts considering exigency but had reservations about the effect on bond guarantees.

Declaring exigency provides a district with more legal protection for terminating contract employees. Last year, one employee who was under contract sued the Austin district saying she was wrongly terminated; the district paid her a $149,500 settlement, about the equivalent of a year's pay and her attorney's fees.

The district last declared financial exigency in 2003. More than 600 positions were eliminated. However, fewer than two dozen employees who wanted to stay actually lost their jobs, district officials said. Others either left voluntarily or were reassigned.

This time, officials said there are few positions for which to reassign the employees. On March 28, administrators are expected to present trustees with a proposal for reorganizing departments, and trustees will vote whether to terminate or not renew contracts of those without jobs.

All contract employees must be notified by April 15 if their jobs are being cut; otherwise, their contracts automatically renew for one year.

At the meeting, students held signs urging trustees to save German and Latin courses. Ty Tuttle, who wants to keep German classes at Gorzycki Middle and Bowie High schools, said, "We feel like no one cares about us."

Parent Courtney Wyrtzen, whose daughter attends Gullett Elementary School, said cutting special education teacher assistants would mean that her daughter and other such students wouldn't be able to spend as much time in regular classroom settings. "She deserves an education with her peers," Wyrtzen said.

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