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AISD braces itself for end of legislative session

Wednesday, May 24, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

The Austin Independent School District’s budget has been strained since the city’s rapid growth began in the late 1990s, but this year’s state legislative session has district staff anticipating the worst.

Chief Financial Officer Nicole Conley Johnson told the AISD Board of Trustees at its May 22 meeting that the best it could hope for would be no cuts and no unfunded mandates, like the notorious “bathroom bill” that the Texas House of Representatives approved on Monday.

“(The bathroom bill) could pose additional expenses to the district if we have to outfit and accommodate various aspects of the bill,” Johnson said at the meeting, “I do anticipate that there could be some cost components associated with that bill.”

There are a number of bills that could pass this session that claim to have zero fiscal impact but have fiscal notes attached, like Senate Bill 693, which would require school buses to have seat belts. “It’s really hard to speculate, but I do think that we probably will end up eating some costs associated with some of these bills,” Johnson said.

These expected financial burdens could result in the district being “bled dry” by the state legislature, according to Board President Kendall Pace. “It seems like the legislature is much more hostile now than it was two years ago,” she said.

AISD will lose almost $29 million in 2018 revenue capacity because it owes more in recapture to the state than it is taking in with new tax collections. Austin’s property values have skyrocketed in the past few decades, which obligates it to provide funds for school districts across Texas with lower property values. Staff predicts that the ratio of recapture to tax collection will become more steep in the future, going from 38.2 percent now to 56.2 percent by 2021.

In the worst-case scenario, Johnson said, the district would seek authorization to tap into its reserves. “We would most likely spend $25 to 30 million if history tells us anything,” she said.

These challenges come at a time when AISD faces a severe under-enrollment crisis and when the board recently adopted a Facility Master Plan Update with a price tag of about $4.6 billion dollars. Despite this “really rotten situation,” Trustee Julie Cowan encouraged her colleagues and the community to not shy away from dreaming big for the Facility Master Plan Update bond proposal. “The state hasn’t done well by us or anyone in public education,” she said. “No one should tell us to not talk about (our options).”

Trustee Jayme Mathias mocked the outdated nature of some of the bills going through the state legislature by comparing them to the 1980s fad of the mullet. “The school finance system that we have dates to the 1980s,” he said. “Our hair fashions have come a long way since then, but our school finance system is stuck there.”

Going forward, Pace acknowledged that there would not be any “good” choices. “People are not going to be happy with the decisions we have to make, no matter what we do,” she said. “I encourage my colleagues to be bold and respectful as we have these conversations.”

The board is scheduled to conduct a public hearing on the proposed Fiscal Year 2017-18 budget on June 19, and it is expected to be adopted on the same day.

Photo by sbmeaper1 made available through a Creative Commons license.

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