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Business leaders push local flexibility in dealing with state’s education crisis

Friday, April 1, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano

Addressing the state-wide education budget crisis, speakers at Thursday’s Austin Chamber of Commerce annual Education Progress Report Luncheon spoke in favor of strict accountability standards, greater empowerment for superintendents and school board trustees, reduced budget cuts and reduced operational mandates by the legislature.


Tony Befi, a vice president at IBM and the Vice Chair of the Chamber’s Education and Talent Development Council, presented a position statement from the Board of Directors that was signed by 80 business leaders.


In his speech, he emphasized a need to maintain strong accountability standards for students by supporting House Bill 3. Befi also spoke in favor of empowering superintendents and school board trustees and reducing state operation requirements and mandates.


“The most frustrating times for me as a leader in business are when I know what has to be done, but I’m not empowered to do it, when I have to go get help, or get support, or just have to  follow some rules which prevent me from being successful,” said Befi. “So I know our superintendents must feel that way.”


Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, shared this opinion. “Today in Texas, it’s against the law to reduce the salary of a teacher. That’s absurd and ridiculous,” said Hammond. “What it means is rather than simply enacting a minor cut in pay which, as a group, teachers would probably be more willing to accept, rather than see some of their associates simply be laid off. School districts need this flexibility.”


Hammond went on to criticize “last in, first out” layoff practices, saying that school districts “need to have the ability to decide which teachers are going to have to seek a different career based on their productivity.”


“We support this kind of flexibility good times or bad, we think decisions are better made locally rather than are made by legislators or bureaucrats at the state capital,” said Hammond. “We think the leadership of the schools, in terms of the superintendents and school boards should have the authority to make some of these decisions on their own.”


Both men, and the position statement, expressed support for House Bill 400, which includes “local control for superintendents and school trustees for personnel, contract design/ termination/ appeals/ operations” and a reduction in operational mandates.


Advocates of the position statement also would support no more than a seven percent cut in funding for Central Texas schools.


A budget cut of seven percent is roughly half of the $94 million in cuts that the school district has been struggling to come to terms with. “We were hovering around 13 percent of our operating budget, and that was just far too much,” said Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, who spoke with In Fact Daily following the luncheon.


“So we have a plan that we don’t like, of course, but getting closer to seven percent makes it more doable,” said Carstarphen. “It gives us a chance to kind of rethink methodologies, rethink the way we are doing business, but also giving ourselves time to change so we don’t really hurt outcomes for kids.”


“Either way you look at it, it’s just a lot for school systems, that, institutionally and historically across the country never change,” said Carstarphen. “No one really understands rethinking… It’s not really in the blood of public education.”


Carstarphen expressed measured optimism about the ability of the cuts to “shake some things loose.”


“When you have to rebuild something almost from scratch to make it affordable, to make it doable, to get the same outcome, you do, you really have to rethink the whole thing,” said Carstarphen. “Most of the time in education we’re let off the hook of that. We kind of just fall back on our institutional past practices.”

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