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AISD funding requests dominate joint meeting

Tuesday, June 30, 2015 by Courtney Griffin

It is no secret that the Austin Independent School District is in tough financial straits, and requests for additional monetary help from the Austin City Council and the Travis County Commissioners Court dominated the recent joint subcommittee meeting.

Representatives from all three entities met to discuss matters of mutual interest — an event that occurs roughly every three months — and Friday’s total funding requests for AISD-related programs equated to about $1.1 million.

While some of the requests were scaled back or postponed over the course of the meeting, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo implored AISD board members, Travis County representatives and several executives with AISD-related organizations to remember that everyone was in tough financial situations given Austin’s growing population.

The Austin Travis County Mentoring Advisory Council, also known as MAC, was among the groups soliciting funds for AISD programs. MAC representatives highlighted the district’s need for programs and pointed to hiccups in the implementation process.

Formed in 2011, MAC is made up of district residents appointed by the joint subcommittee and tasked with providing mentors for 5,000 underserved youths.

MAC member Suki Steinhauser asked each of the three governmental entities to contribute 64 percent more funding than they contributed last year, partly to place a MAC coordinator on AISD’s payroll.

Steinhauser said that AISD has over 44,000 kids who are at risk for dropping out, meaning that they fall into one or more of the Texas Education Agency’s 13 at-risk categories.

“So, that means they have challenges, like they are living in foster care, are homeless, they’ve been held back in school or they’ve failed standardized tests. Some of them are English language learners, and there’s other risk factors, too,” said Steinhauser.

MAC serves those students who fall into three or more categories, but the program has floundered because there is not enough funding to ensure that students are paired with quality mentors. MAC performs only background checks on potential mentors and does not have the resources to ensure that mentor matches are a good fit or to foster relationships that benefit students academically, Steinhauser said.

“Statistics show mentoring increases attendance, a positive attitude towards school … and we have been doing this piecemeal for quite awhile now,” said District 3 Board Member Ann Teich, stressing the need for at least partial funding. “When you have bad mentoring, you increase the problems these children have.”

After discussion, MAC scaled back its original $126,500 request (roughly $42,000 apiece from the city, county and school district) to an estimated $81,500. MAC members said that amount would go toward two necessary items: hiring a full-time coordinator and providing additional funding for data-based technology to track program effectiveness.

At-Large Board Member Kendall Pace pointed out, however, that 43 nonprofit organizations and community programs serve AISD’s at-risk youths with mentorship programs that may be considered substandard. The district gets requests to hire group coordinators all the time, she said.

“So, isn’t this an issue of nonprofit providers trying to grow and find capacity (for this position)?” Pace asked.

MAC member Sari Waxler said five of the largest nonprofit groups mentoring AISD students have representatives involved in the advisory council, but she conceded that any involvement with the coordinator would be voluntary. Waxler added that the group hoped to educate principals on all aspects of quality mentor relationships and data-proven programs.

In the past, Pace has stressed the necessity of a district-wide audit to examine programs’ effectiveness, overlapping services and financial practices. She told the Austin Monitor that there is talk of forming an AISD finance committee to address staff’s habit of funding programs from multiple budget sources throughout the year, which makes it difficult to pinpoint costs.

The joint committee recommended $82,500 in funding for MAC’s coordinator and a potential investment in database-related technology in a 4-0 vote, with District 8 Council Member Ellen Troxclair abstaining.

The committee also recommended $100,000 apiece from the city and Travis County to continue AISD’s Family Resource Center and $680,000 each from the city and county to continue AISD’s Parent Support Specialist for spring 2016. It postponed a $150,000 request from School’s Out Central Texas, a coalition of nonprofit afterschool care and summer learning organizations. Committee members requested that School’s Out representatives define their scope of services and provide a more detailed budget.

While AISD does contribute funding and resources to area nonprofit organizations, the Monitor was unable to get exact numbers by press time because district offices are closed until July 3.

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