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AISD parents ask Senate committee to use rainy day fund

Tuesday, February 8, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

A number of Austin Independent School District parents testified at last night’s Senate Finance Committee hearing, telling senators they wanted to put a face on what the state’s impending budget cuts might mean to individual schools.

 

Parents on nine AISD campuses, faced with the prospect of potential closure, have rallied, lobbied, pleaded and cajoled at the Capitol in the last couple of weeks. Yesterday, after a marathon session with budget writers that included testimony on various minor education expenditures, Austin parents took their turn to plead their case as to the fate of their campuses.

 

“I’m not here today representing a district, an association or a union,” Barton Hills Elementary School parent Suzanne Soares told the panel. “Today I’m here on behalf of my beautiful first-grade daughter. Four weeks ago her heart was broken when an Ohio-based consulting firm, who was paid nearly $1 million by the Austin Independent School District, recommended her exemplary elementary school be up for closure.”

 

AISD is a canary in a coal mine among public school systems in Texas, Soares said. With a shortfall that could be in excess of $100 million, AISD was faced with budget choices that ignored the academic achievement of some of its best schools. And many of those campuses are considered more fiscally efficient than the overall district, according to recent data out of the Comptroller’s office.

 

“I realize that you have a really big challenge in front of you, but on behalf of my beautiful daughter and hundreds of children like her, I ask you to prioritize and protect the Foundation School Program and utilize the entirety of the state’s Rainy Day Fund,” Soares said. “It’s not an exaggeration to say the future economic capacity of this state depends on your decision.”

 

Lawmakers were sympathetic to the emotion of Soares and a handful of other AISD parents but were not necessarily swayed by their arguments. Much of the discussion earlier in the day revolved around whether, and how, lawmakers could determine that school districts were as efficient as possible with the use of their funding. And the specter was raised that lawmakers might actually force school districts to dip into their own combined rainy day funds, which are estimated to be as much as $10 billion set aside to handle financial shortfalls.

 

Conservatives remained skeptical on any number of fronts, including

 

  • Whether school districts are financially efficient;
  • Whether existing rainy day funds are excessive; and
  • Whether belt tightening might not be a great idea when it comes to forcing school districts to deal with what Senate Education Committee Chair Sen. Florence Shapiro (R-Plano) calls “the new normal” for school district funding.

For years, the state dealt with property values that grew at a rate as high as 10 percent a year. School districts, funded almost entirely on property tax revenues, reaped the benefits. Texas, however, would be lucky to see such economic benefits anytime in the near future and probably not for at least another decade, Shapiro told her colleagues.

 

And then the question turns to how well school districts spend their money. As Shapiro noted in her comments, Texas school districts now employ as many people outside the classroom as they do in the classroom.


If the state’s school finance system was fully and properly funded, as suggested by the Texas Education Agency’s budget appropriations request, did Soares think her school would remain open? Shapiro asked.

 

“Yes, I think it would stay open,” Soares said. “I do.”

“Do you think that’s the reason you’re closing?” asked Shapiro.

 

“I think they’re looking for ways to save money,” Soares said. “I think they were put in charge of looking at facilities in a 10-year time frame, and I think they went for school closures right off the bat, without looking at other ways to save money.”

 

Shapiro said she had been informed that AISD already had begun to look for additional, or different, ways to cut the budget. And in community meetings, a variety of other cost-cutting options have been proposed at the end of presentation. That was not enough to convince Soares that trustees might forego school closure in favor of other budget-cutting options.

 

“That has not been communicated to the community,” Soares said. “Watch the news every night. You can see that has not been the message.”

 

Commissioner Robert Scott, in testimony to the Senate Finance Committee yesterday afternoon, reiterated his commitment to preserve, first and foremost, full payments to school districts out of the Available School Fund, or ASF. Shapiro also made strong pledges yesterday to preserve textbook funding, which has sometimes been hampered when lawmakers have chosen to raid those funds, basically investment proceeds, to cover budget shortfalls.

 

Other testimony yesterday covered the expected gamut of concerns about the budget:

 

  • Pleas from the Boys and Girls Clubs and Communities in Schools to maintain baseline funding;
  • Concerns that equitable revenue be maintained to assist property poor school districts; a rebuttal from the Texas School Alliance about the growth in non-teacher personnel; and
  • Testimony from teacher groups about the downside of cutting up to 100,000 employees from payrolls if the state fails to fill a $10 billion budget funding gap for education.

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