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AISD reviews staffing; changes could cost millions

Thursday, October 22, 2015 by Courtney Griffin

With enrollment dropping, a tight budget and no sign of relief from the Supreme Court of Texas, the Austin Independent School District board of trustees trudged forward with its budget discussion Monday, assuming another year of limited resources and growing challenges.

Despite approving this year’s budget only two months ago, board members have already begun planning next year’s finances. This is, in part, because the Fiscal Year 2016-17 budget is scheduled to be adopted earlier than usual. Last summer, board members approved a new July 1 fiscal year start date, which replaced the previous Sept. 1 date.

It’s a change that AISD Chief Financial Officer Nicole Conley previously said would provide some relief by better aligning funds with AISD’s normal budget cycle. It also provides a one-time revenue bump because of the shortened year.

But Monday, board members took a look at their largest budget expenditure: personnel, which makes up 87 cents of every dollar AISD spends. The board’s staffing decisions will determine the amount of money provided to individual schools as well as the makeup of certain special instructional programs or magnet schools.

Chief Human Capital Officer Michael Houser said a school’s personnel funding is determined by its student-to-teacher ratio goals and requirements; its special instructional programs, such as bilingual education; and its special education needs. Within the district, Houser said most elementary schools are staffed at about a 20:1 student-to-teacher ratio, and high schools and middle schools are staffed at a 29:1 student-to-teacher ratio, as targeted. Under law, AISD is required to implement at 22:1 student-to-teacher ratio from kindergarten to fourth grade.

In the eyes of the Texas Association of School Boards, however, AISD’s overall student-to-teacher ratio, 15:1, is better than those of comparable school districts such as Dallas or Corpus Christi ISD, Houser said. TASB configures that ratio by calculating the number of teachers per thousand students, without regard for a teacher’s specialty or grade level.

“We have a lot of teachers and a lot of employees in the teacher cost account who aren’t necessarily providing teaching in the classroom directly in front of students,” Houser added. “Some of these would be instructional specialists, the instructional coaches, curriculum specialists, reading specialists – all of those people are involved in our classrooms, but not listed as teachers of record.”

Houser said in order to lower AISD’s student-to-teacher ratio by one across the district, AISD would need $8.5 million and 147 teachers. The district currently spends about $432 million on its teachers.

But Vice President Amber Elenz suggested looking at changing the student-to-teacher ratio at the middle schools, given AISD’s continual decline in enrollment.

“We lose enrollment around the fifth grade. That’s a huge place where we lose it,” Elenz said, pointing to the middle school ratio. “It really starts giving the conversation of leaving AISD some traction.”

Within the first six weeks of school, AISD lost 1,070 students compared to last year, leaving its total enrollment at about 83,700, according to district documents. The school that experienced the largest dip in enrollment this year was Burnet Middle School, which lost 127 students.

Elenz also added that the 15:1 ratio Houser mentioned was also something many families do not experience.

“Where that’s happening? I think that’s worth exploring because that’s not what most of my students feel,” she said.

District 3 Trustee Ann Teich said that in her district, the middle school ratio not only is causing students to leave but has created a discipline issue, which in turn creates a teacher retention issue.

“Students whose brains are flatlining and their hormones are rising, all of those things together makes for a difficult teaching situation,” Teich said.

Teich added that she would like staff to take another look at the Liberal Arts and Science Academy’s funding allocation. In order to maintain its rigorous programming, the school receives 25 percent more funding than AISD’s other non-magnet schools.

“I don’t think they need any more special consideration than any of the rest of our students all over the district,” she said.

Nevertheless, Conley and Houser said changes to the current status quo, including using a more competitive system to pay teachers, simply costs more money – money that AISD does not have.

“I think (the data) tells us time and time again that we either pay fewer people more or more people less,” Houser said. “We know for a fact unless we find a really terrific revenue stream that we haven’t found after working together for five or six years now, it’s going to be a situation of looking at all the number of positions in this district.”

Houser said that some of the reduction could be achieved through attrition over a six-year period. Conley added that AISD continues to talk with local municipalities about shifting some of the district taxes to them so that AISD can receive the full funding stream. The district is subject to state recapture laws, which means millions in AISD tax revenue goes back to the state.

In a glimmer of hope, some are expecting a change in Texas’ school finance system – which would have largely positive implications for AISD – to happen before the 2016-2017 school year.

Trustees are set to vote on the makeup of AISD’s staff and funding parameters on Nov. 23.

Graph courtesy of the Austin Independent School District.

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