Education
11:27 am
Mon January 24, 2011

Austin School Board To Consider Axing 536 Jobs At Tonight's Meeting

It's going to be a busy night at Austin Independent School District headquarters as board members confront some of the toughest decisions they have been asked to make in their careers as school district leaders. After Superintendent Meria Carstarphen promised in a letter last week that "positions will be terminated" as the projected budget balloons to $113 million, hundreds of jobs will be on the chopping block tonight.

A summary of staffing reductions to be presented to board members tonight recommends eliminating 536.7 full time positions. The 0.7 comes from the fact that positions at less than full time are counted as fractions.  The cuts would save the district $27.1 million.

Most jobs would be eliminated by increasing class-to-teacher ratios. For example, pre-kindergarten would be staffed at a radio of 20 students to 1 teacher. That would allow the district to layoff 23 full time employees for a savings of $1.25 million. 

The plan would eliminate more than 300 full-time teaching positions, 74 librarians, 35 parent support specialists, and 20 special education teachers. Read the full schedule of reductions here.

Education Austin, the teachers association, says if the district goes ahead with job cuts, it should look at trying to rehire some of those laid off staff.  "This year AISD [hired] more than 500 new teachers, and there's no reason to do that if we're going to eliminate some positions," Education Austin co-president Rae Nwosu told KUT News.

Even if the school board agrees to all the layoffs, it would still have to find $86 million in savings to close AISD's projected budget gap of $113 million. It's worth noting here that the $113 million figure is an estimate based on a baseline House budget proposal that is unlikely to adopted in its current form. As Ross Ramsey with our political reporting partner the Texas Tribune wrote in the New York Times this weekend, the lawmakers proposing the extreme cuts are doing it to prevent it from happening.

In some ways, this House plan is the sort of stunt the governor pulled in 2003. Nobody has leaped up to say they’d vote for it, or really even to defend it. Representative Jim Pitts, the Waxahachie Republican who leads the Appropriations Committee and whose name is on the bill, told his colleagues in a session explaining the proposal that it would change as the session went along — a way of saying things will be bad, but not this bad.

So what’s the point of introducing it? To sound the alarm and see who answers. It’s a Chicken Little budget. “You know, there’s nothing in this bill that’s not painful,” Mr. Pitts said.

AISD financial chief Nicole Conley-Abrams, who will give a fiscal update at tonight's meeting, has only the House budget document to form her projections. But parents should know that the school district, like state legislators, are preparing for a worst case scenario that may or may not materialize.

Meanwhile, the Statesman's Editorial Board, after admonishing school district leaders earlier this month over a proposal to shutter neighborhood schools, today comes to the defense of Dr. Carstarphen. The Board published a piece in this morning's paper that says the Superintendent is not to blame for the potential layoffs.

Carstarphen said the district can't absorb huge cuts from the state on top of reduced revenue from declining property values. Something has to give, and that means cutting bone, as there is little or no fat left to slice.

Carstarphen deserves credit for serving up a budget for the current year that was balanced largely by eliminating administrative positions and other nonclassroom-related expenditures. She spared classrooms, and the value of that is evident in the big academic gains Austin schools made during the past school year. All but one school was rated acceptable or better.

Also at tonight's meeting will be a large contingent of parents who have organized as The Coalition to Save Austin Urban Schools. They are trying to stop the school district from shuttering eight neighborhood schools. They have a rally planned for 5 p.m. outside school district headquarters.

KUT News has obtained letters sent to AISD leaders from parents at downtown Pease Elementary, one of the schools slated for closure. Pease, a school rated exemplary by the state, is unique in Austin ISD in that it has no attendance zone; all students are transfers from other areas. Many of them have parents who work downtown and enjoy being only minutes away from their children's school.

Pease parent Yvonne Ortiz-Prince, the Dean of Student Affairs at Huston-Tillotson University, writes that "Pease’s diversity is intentional and it reflects an unwavering commitment amidst a city largely segregated by race, income, and access to a quality education."

Pease graduate Robin Wilson, now the CEO of her own company, writes about how the downtown elementary school formed the foundation of her success.

The AISD Facilities Task Force, the body that made the initial school closure recommendations, is scheduled to hold another meeting tomorrow night to discuss its ten year plan.  During an emergency meeting over the weekend, Dr. Carstarphen told Task Force members to be less concerned with trying to help close the budget gap, and more focused on the district's long term goals.

You can read the agenda for tonight's school board meeting here.