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Council faces tough choices in quest to help school district

Thursday, February 17, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

City Council is expected to pass a resolution today directing the city manager to seek out new ways the city can help the Austin Independent School District handle its current budget woes.

 

During yesterday’s Council work session, Council Member Sheryl Cole expressed concerns about the number of pre-kindergarten classrooms AISD carries on its rolls (321) and wondered whether city and non-profit facilities could pick up the slack.

 

Council Member Randi Shade, who grew up in Dallas, was concerned that Austin might turn into an urban setting like Dallas, where many parents pull their kids out of public school and send them to private options. In Austin, about 94 percent of all parents send their children to public school. AISD Superintendant Meria Carstarphen agreed that Austin is one of the last urban districts where parents are committed to the public school system.

 

Council Member Chris Riley wanted to know where the city and district could realign short- and long-term inner-city density goals. Austin’s goal is to promote inner-city density, but the school district has proposed closing inner-city schools. Could inner-city schools be kept open, even in the short term, in order to match city-district goals, Riley wondered.

 

The school district’s transfer policy was also a point of discussion. School Board President Mark Williams said transferring students between schools is used for a number of reasons, including academic failures, minority diversity, and general choice. That’s especially true of secondary schools. In her comments, Carstarphen said some of that choice might not be viable under current budget constraints.

 

Mayor Lee Leffingwell was inclined to leave partnership specifics to a future discussion. Riley encouraged Carstarphen to look to Capital Metro for possible budget-sharing options, such as joint fueling stations.

 

The school district faces an impending annual budget shortfall of around $100 million, an amount that could slide up or down based on decisions at the statehouse. Council appears intent to mitigate that shortfall wherever possible, whether by providing local recreational centers to house pre-kindergarten classes in the short term or aligning city-district policies in order to encourage central city living in the long term.

 

Carstarphen, joined by Williams, Chief Financial Officer Nicole Conley-Abram, and Chief Counsel Mel Waxler spent almost two hours during yesterday’s work session discussing AISD’s financial challenges with Council members. Carstarphen and Williams were insistent that current plans for potential school closures should not be confused solely with state budget issues.

 

“By no means is it possible to use the infrastructure problems we have to right-size our deficit,” Carstarphen said, referring to the current controversy over school closures. “Around the time I came in, we had a $27 to $30 million structural deficit a year, and we’ve been chipping away at it every budget cycle. The gap we have between that and what we’re talking about in terms of the state budget is a whole other piece of information.”

 

The school district is in a serious budget hole and is not expected to fare well in the current state legislative session. Austin, according to the latest financial figures, receives a lot of target revenue from the state and has high expenditures when compared to comparable neighboring urban districts.

 

That won’t bode well for Austin in the current session. Lawmakers are already gunning for efficiency in expenditures, an idea that would assuredly mean cuts to the school district. In Austin’s defense, the district continues to cover the bulk of its employees’ health insurance costs and contributes $44 million to their Social Security funds, something most school districts in Texas don’t do. Most widows and widowers who teach in Texas public schools receive no benefit at all from a spouse’s early death.

 

Austin has already sent $1.3 billion in tax revenues back to the state in the last decade under the state’s so-called Robin Hood school finance plan. That plan is supposed to equalize school funding across the state.

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