Last night, the Austin Independent School District board approved a 2015 budget of over $1 billion, which includes pay increases for teachers and employees.
However, those increases are a one-time deal due to the so-called "recapture program" in the state's school finance laws, which will require a reallocation of $175 million in Travis County property taxes this year.
When the school district started planning this year’s budget at the beginning of last school year, former Superintendent Meria Carstarphen said the district would not continue a one and a half percent salary hike employees. Last night, the school board reversed that policy by approving a two percent increase for teachers and staff, on top of another one-time three percent pay increase from previous years.
“I want to say there’s been a seat change as the interim has come in and has listened to us and listened to what we’ve asked and respects the fact that we want a pay raise, that we do want an increase, that we don’t take away but we give to and add to great work that teachers and employees around this district are doing.”
The money for this will come from the district's reserve fund — kind of a rainy day fund. That's also where the district is getting $24 million dollars to balance its overall budget. That deficit is one reason the district says it can’t make those pay increases permanent, says Trustee Ann Teich
“I think our teachers deserve a raise, but at this point I feel like our hands are a bit tied,” says Teich.
The district says its hands are tied by the state’s school finance system, which requires the district to give some of its local property taxes to the state to help fund poorer school districts. That is, if the district raises more in taxes than its so-called “basic allotment” – the amount of money a district needs to operate, as determined by the state.
This year, the district will send $175 million to the state, and that number only increases annually. It’s expected that number will increased to roughly $300 million by 2018. And – despite 60 percent of Austin students are considered low-income – the district’s above-average property values continue to increase the amount given to other districts in the recapture, or “Robin Hood,” program.
The district, along with the teachers union, business leaders and state lawmakers, asked the state to reduce the amount of local property taxes it takes from Austin ISD in a press conference.
State Rep. Donna Howard said the state legislature should focus on giving schools more money to avoid increased distribution across-district.
“Once we increase the basic amount that the state provides for the basic foundational part of our school program, it decreases the recapture that’s required,” Howard says. “So there are things we can do immediately.”
It’s unclear if the legislature will take up public education funding this session, which district leaders cite as the reason the increase in pay is only temporary. But teachers and employees say the rising cost of living in Austin is tying their hands, too.
“It has been challenge to pay my bills to feed my children,” says Lisa Pannell, a district bus driver of 16 years. “And sometimes you have to say, ‘What bill can I put off this week so I can buy $80 worth of groceries?’”
Labor leaders say they will continue to push for permanent pay hikes, but a reexamination of the state’s school finance system could come as soon as this week, when a judge is expected to rule whether the state’s system is constitutional.