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AISD educators ask for $24 million more

Friday, May 22, 2015 by Courtney Griffin

Employees from every area of the Austin Independent School District asked for higher wages Monday night. The most popular request came with a $24.5 million price tag.

As in past meetings, Education Austin, an AISD teachers union, continued to advocate for an across-the-board 5 percent wage increase for all district employees. According to Nicole Conley, AISD’s chief financial officer, the May 18 regular meeting was one of the last before the district’s revenue stream solidifies next month and heavy budget planning can begin.

“I know that this is where I want to be for years to come, but the reality of whether or not I can afford it bogs the back of my mind,” said Erica De Los Santos, an AISD teacher. “I currently have two jobs, and I haven’t had to do that since I was in college.”

The raise, if implemented, would affect 12,053 AISD employees and add about $24.5 million to the district’s expenses, not including additional benefit payments. Teachers comprise about 53 percent of AISD’s workforce with 6,369 instructors; other salaried employees make up about 26 percent and hourly personnel about 21 percent.

AISD ranks among the lowest of local and urban districts for teacher compensation, which is part of the impetus behind the strong push for raises.

An AISD teacher with 10 years of experience could be making an estimated $3,500 more working in Round Rock ISD, for example. Moreover, the cost-of-living index in Round Rock is about seven points lower than in Austin.

Raise advocates say that between AISD’s low pay and the area’s high cost of living, the district is at risk of losing high-quality teachers to the competition.

Steve Coyle, an AISD employee, said, “If you don’t compensate (teachers), we can fill those positions, but at worst, we can degrade our workforce to where we’re putting kids at risk.”

Members from the Southwest Workers Union provided a different perspective. They highlighted the wage gap between the more highly paid AISD administrators and principals and the less well-paid hourly workers.

According to 2013-2014 district data, AISD pays middle school principals about $9,000 more on average than surrounding districts. It pays elementary school principals about $600 more, but high school principals about $700 less.

On average, bus drivers earn about 70 cents less per hour than those in other districts. Cafeteria workers are paid about $1.67 above the average.

Juan Barrientos, who has worked as a custodian at Lanier High School for 10 years, asked the school district to consider restructuring the way it determines employee income and grants raises.

Barrientos is referring to the AISD board of trustees publicly saying it will try to give all employees at least a 1.5 percent raise this coming year, as well as another 1.5 percent for teachers, librarians and counselors with five or more years of experience.

Instead, he believes AISD should scrap the percent raise increases and implement a step program – a system that grants salary increases based on experience – to its hourly employees.

As an example, he compared the difference a raise would make for him versus Superintendent Paul Cruz under the standard system.

“Our current superintendent makes over $200,000 a year, and if he was to get a 1.5 percent increase, he would be taking home an extra $3,000 a year,” Barrientos said.

Barrientos makes $11.84 an hour, or about $20,000 a year. Given the 1.5 percent raise, he would bring home about $300 more, compared to Cruz’s $3,000.

Chavel López, a labor coordinator with Southwest Workers Union, advocated for a living wage of $21 an hour. He said that number is based on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s rent estimate for Austin, which puts a two-bedroom apartment at $1,050. The hourly workers simply can’t afford to live here, he said.

The rush of commenters came on the heels of House Bill 1759’s death on Texas’ House floor last week. Authored by state Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen), the House’s Public Education Committee chair, the school finance reform bill would have provided AISD with an additional $48 million next year because it would have nixed many of the property tax recapture regulations that require AISD to give a good chunk of local tax revenue back to the state.

The AISD board is working with a preliminary $1.1 billion budget for fiscal year 2016, which draws about $30 million from the fund balance to make up for the lack of revenue. The preliminary budget includes the 1.5 percent employee raise.

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