Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Local school districts won't spend on jobs until they know amount of state funding

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Central Texas school districts have reacted to the news that they would get millions in federal funding to help save jobs with caution.

The Texas Education Agency told districts Monday what their portions of the $830 million in federal aid would be. The Austin school district will get $13.8 million; the Round Rock district will get $6.9 million; Leander will get $4.9 million; Pflugerville will get $3.7 million; and the Hays district will get $2.4 million.

The news is good — districts have been cutting programs and laying off teachers to try to close budget gaps largely caused by projected drops in state funding — but several officials in area districts said they can't plan on using the money to rehire teachers until they know how much funding they will get from the state. The House version of the budget gives school districts as much as $6.5 billion less than the state owes them under current law. The Senate plan would reduce that amount by about $4 billion.

"If it goes the same way it did in the last session — where they just did a shell game where the feds sent us money and then the state just reduced their effort — that doesn't do us a heck of a lot of good," Hutto Superintendent Doug Killian said.

"All these people who are jumping up and down because of the ed job moneys are forgetting history," Killian said. "We're happy about it, potentially. But we're really kind of watching ourselves, because we just don't know what it's going to end up doing long-term with what the House plan looks like right now."

Hutto is cutting at least 75 positions and is closing an elementary school to fill the

$4 million hole in its $39.6 million budget for 2011-12.

The federal funds had been tied up because of a provision that required Texas to maintain current spending levels through 2013. The provision was repealed last month.

The Texas Education Agency is distributing the money under the state's school finance formula, which uses a weighted average daily attendance. Stipulations require the money — which is immediately available — to be used for personnel-related costs, including salaries and benefits, or for support services needed to hire or rehire school-level employees.

Districts can cover personnel-related costs from September 2010 through the next fiscal year, said Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the agency.

The Austin school district cut 1,153 jobs, including 571 teachers, to help reduce an estimated $94 million shortfall in its $690.1 million 2011-12 operating budget to $46.3 million. District officials did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday said in a statement that the district will use the grant to fund current budget items including "full-day, pre-kindergarten and for school librarians, and to support secondary planning periods."

The statement made no mention of reinstating eliminated positions.

"I don't think any school district would be in a position to pre-emptively apply that money now, without knowing what the Legislature is going to do regarding school funding," Hays Superintendent Jeremy Lyon said. "So really, it's yet another piece of the puzzle that is yet to be solved."

Hays is eliminating more than 100 jobs, including 31 teachers, to close a $7 million shortfall from its 2011-12 projected budget of $120 million.

The Round Rock district laid off 350 employees, largely probationary teachers in their first years of teaching, to close its projected $60 million shortfall of its $345 million budget.

The district prioritized its cuts in such a way that restoring cut teachers would come first, said Superintendent Jesús Chávez, which "fits well with the federal education job dollars."

"The focus is that we hire classroom positions or school positions, which had been our intent in Round Rock all along," Chávez said.

The Leander district cut 250 positions, laying off 213 first-year teachers, to make up a nearly $20 million hole in its $244 million 2011-12 budget.

"In a perfect world, this money will assist us in bringing some people back," Leander Superintendent Bret Champion said. "The question of course still becomes, 'What is the Legislature going to do and how is that going to impact the overall budget?', which will let us know how we can spend the $4.8 million.

"It's a weird waiting game we're in," Champion said.

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