Education
12:37 pm
Fri January 21, 2011

"Positions Will Be Terminated" At AISD As Projected Deficit Swells to $113 Million

Staff at the Austin Independent School District received a chilling letter from Superintendent Meria Carstarphen yesterday. It warned that AISD would have to slash spending by $113 million if the Texas legislature adopts a budget proposed by House leaders. Dr. Carstarphen writes that "positions will be terminated."

Dr. Carstarphen surprised staff, school board members, and the public when she revealed the new deficit figures to a KXAN reporter who approached her unannounced outside a League of Women Voters event on Tuesday night. As KUT reported yesterday afternoon, AISD staff would not confirm what their boss had already been quoted as saying on TV the night before.

But Superintendent Carstarphen changed that by sending out this letter to staff yesterday and posting it on her blog this morning.

Based upon our preliminary analysis of the House’s spending proposal, AISD’s budget crisis has become significantly more challenging.  No longer are we looking at a deficit of $54 million, or even $90 million, which some once thought was highly exaggerated.  Based upon the proposed state funding cuts, it now appears that AISD must achieve reductions of approximately $113 million, to balance spending with available revenue for School Year 2011-2012.  Our analysis shows that it is unlikely that AISD will be able to absorb all of these costs in one year.  Therefore, we are working to spread the reductions out over two years, whenever possible.

The school district has also developed a logo to represent the difficult budget challenges ahead. It reads: "Tough Times/Tough Choices, Focus on Student Success" Dr. Carstarphen used similar language in her letter to staff.

Dr. Carstarphen can recommend cuts to major programs but ultimate responsibility for the budget rests with the Austin ISD Board of Trustees, the nine men and women who are elected to the school board.

"I think everything is on the table," school board president Mark Williams told KUT News in response to a question over whether full-day pre-kindergarten could be axed. "Particularly because we don't know exactly what the cuts are going to be this year, and beyond that, in the second, third and fourth year."

Keep in mind, the House budget proposal is a baseline recommendation that shows a worst case scenario of service cuts. It is highly unlikely to be adopted as it is, according to political observer and managing editor of the Texas Tribune, Ross Ramsey.

"In part, it's a way of showing everybody, 'Okay, you asked for this. Here's what it would actually look like. Do you still want it?'" Ramsey told KUT News earlier this week.

The sentiment was echoed by the chief budget writer in the House, Jim Pitts (R-Waxahachie), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

The Fort Worth Star Telegram reports Pitts told lawmakers the recommendations are only a starting point. 

"I don't want the folks back home to think this is a done deal," said Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, as he briefed House members about the 980-page document. "It is not."

The first draft of the budget includes no tax increases and leaves the state's rainy-day fund untouched.

The budget does propose millions of dollars in new fees. For instance, state employees and retirees who smoke would pay a $30-a-month "tobacco user monthly premium surcharge" for their health insurance, and the attorney general's office would charge an "annual child-support service fee," a "monthly child-support processing fee" and an "electronic filing of documents fee.

 

Many school districts still find that starting point to be pretty severe. The Dallas Morning News reports on how a couple North Texas school districts are reacting.

“The news is very bad,” Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said. “That is hugely staggering.” While most school officials assume that the final budget will be significantly different than the first version, they say they can’t afford to ignore the numbers.  

Here is the letter Dr. Carstarphen sent to AISD staff yesterday afternoon:

January 20, 2011

Dear AISD Colleagues:         

I wanted to inform you as quickly as possible about where we are on creating an administrative recommendation to close the Fiscal Year 2012 Budget gap, against the devastating consequences that the proposed State Spending Bill, made public this week by the House Appropriations Committee, would have on the operations of the Austin School District.  As you may have heard, public education in Texas will bear the major brunt of the reductions in the proposed two-year spending bill, which could reach as high as $10 billion.  Foundation School funding, and virtually every grant program to assist public schools, as administered by the Texas Education Agency, is proposed for significant cuts, if not complete elimination.

While districts across the state have been preparing for significant state budget cuts, well-respected education consultant Lynn Moak says the proposed state reductions are roughly two to three times more significant than what most Texas school districts were preparing to handle.  Mr. Moak was quoted in the Quorum Report as saying of the House leadership’s proposed budget, “They had a 60-year commitment to public education, and by not funding at the minimum, at the base formulas, they’ve failed to meet that commitment.  We’ve never done that.  We didn’t do that in 2003 when they had a $10 billion funding crisis.  That’s what makes this crisis different for public education.”

Based upon our preliminary analysis of the House’s spending proposal, AISD’s budget crisis has become significantly more challenging.  No longer are we looking at a deficit of $54 million, or even $90 million, which some once thought was highly exaggerated.  Based upon the proposed state funding cuts, it now appears that AISD must achieve reductions of approximately $113 million, to balance spending with available revenue for School Year 2011-2012.  Our analysis shows that it is unlikely that AISD will be able to absorb all of these costs in one year.  Therefore, we are working to spread the reductions out over two years, whenever possible.

In the past two years, we have cut $27 million from the Central Office budget, by eliminating more than 100 positions and enacting a hiring freeze; restricting travel and curtailing operating expenses; eliminating paper pay checks; moving towards self-insurance; and undertaking other cost-savings measures.  We also have plans for Central Office to operate on a 10-hour/four-day work week in July to save on energy costs, and other operational expenses.

Based upon the well-attended series of Employee and Community Forums that the District held in the latter part of 2010, on-line parent and staff surveys, and other outreach, we were able to achieve some agreement on additional budget cuts totaling nearly $25 million for SY 2011-2012.  We have just received the results of a staffing review that we worked on with the Texas Association of School Boards, identifying areas of campus and administrative operations where the District is over-staffed and understaffed, as compared with peer districts and state averages.  Those TASB staffing guidelines can produce savings of $4-6 million.

The Administration is proposing that the District’s Fund Balance be reduced by at least $15 million to help off-set the impact of these additional cuts.  Still, very difficult days are ahead.  School closures are still being reviewed.  Positions will be terminated.  Programs will be cut, or eliminated.  All of this is discouraging, but as hard as it is, we must remain focused and committed to our main objective—keeping our classroom instruction strong, and helping our students succeed.

On Monday, January 24, the AISD Board of Trustees will approve the staffing formulas that are necessary to allocate personnel to individual campuses.  The recommended staffing formulas will be based upon feedback from our stakeholder and the findings of the TASB review, as well as the changes to classroom curriculum and course offerings that will be necessary for AISD to balance its budget.  I encourage you to watch the Board Meeting, beginning at 7 p.m., either on AISD-TV, Channel 22, or the AISD Website at http://www.austinisd.org

In closing, let me thank you, again, for your dedication to Austin students.  While you continue your daily focus on educating Austin students, the Administration and Board of Trustees remain committed to considering every option available on minimizing the impact of these budget cuts on classrooms and staff.  I will continue to keep you apprised of significant developments, as we proceed through these very difficult times. 

Sincerely,

Meria