Monthly Archives: February 2011

Slow down, AISD

Although every school district around the state is getting ready for the legislative budget ax to fall, Austin ISD seems more eager than most to fire teachers.

OK, OK, maybe “eager” is too strong a word. But AISD administrators seem to be chomping at the bit to decide how many teachers and other employees to lay off to help close an anticipated budgetary shortfall, even though they don’t know for sure yet how big their financial hole will be.

The AISD board tonight will be looking at a preliminary budget proposal, prepared by the district administration, which calls for eliminating 1,153 jobs (including 571 teachers), cutting programs and increasing class sizes, which is what happens when you reduce the number of teachers. Board members also are being asked to declare that AISD is in a state of financial emergency, which is what they have to do under current state law to make it easier to eliminate teaching positions under contract.

The Austin AmericanStatesman has a fuller account of the meeting’s agenda in a story linked at the bottom of this post.

Rae Nwosu, copresident of Education Austin, the TSTA affiliate that represents more than 4,000 district employees, has urged the board to postpone a vote on the financial emergency until AISD has a clearer picture of what the Legislature will do about the state budget. Rae is correct.

Under the current statehouse leadership, there is little doubt that the public education budget will share in spending cuts that will be made to close a state revenue shortfall as high as $27 billion. But with a little luck – and a lot of growing outrage from parents and other concerned citizens throughout Texas – the reductions won’t be as deep as the initial cuts included in the initial legislative budgetary proposals.

For one thing, the initial budget plans don’t contemplate spending any of the state’s $9.4 billion Rainy Day Fund because that’s the approach demanded by Gov. Rick Perry and the vocal Tea Party advocates who want to shrink state government, even if it means gutting the public schools.

But support for spending at least some (maybe most) of the Rainy Day Fund is growing among key legislators. They know that is the right thing to do, and they realize that passing crippling budget cuts will jeopardize their reelection bids among the vast majority of voters who care about public education and other critical services. TSTA, meanwhile, will continue to urge the Legislature to spend all of the Rainy Day Fund and seek new revenue sources as well.

The AISD board also has another financial option. They can ask local voters for a modest increase in property taxes. For the past three years, AISD’s tax rate for school operations has been about $1.08 per $100 valuation. That’s about 9 cents below the maximum allowed by the state, if voters approve. School board members obviously fear a political backlash if they propose a tax increase. But they should ask local voters if they would rather see their kids crammed into overcrowded classrooms and some neighborhood schools closed – or pay a few more cents on their school taxes.

AISD parents already have made it clear they don’t want to see neighborhood schools shut down.

Under current state law, AISD has until April 15, six weeks from now, before it has to notify contract employees if their jobs are being cut. And, a bill has been filed in the Legislature, with bipartisan support, to give districts more time before final termination decisions are made. The bill would keep the April deadline (45 days before the end of the school year) but allow districts to postpone final decisions on whether to retain or lay off a notified teacher until after the school year ends in June.

The idea is to minimize employee layoffs as much as possible.

The AISD board needs to take a deep, collective breath and slow down.

Sand in their ears

There is a big difference between practicing ideology and governing effectively, a difference being played out daily in the drama over unionbusting initiated by the goofus governor of Wisconsin.

Closer to home, the Tea Party advisors to the Texas Legislature also are persisting in putting ideology over political sanity, and even the most conservative lawmakers had better think twice before heeding their advice.

According to an item in Jason Embry’s column in today’s Austin AmericanStatesman, the Legislature’s Tea Party Caucus Advisory Committee is urging legislators to not only oppose raising taxes or fees (no surprise there) but also to refuse to spend any of the state’s $9.4 billion Rainy Day Fund to help plug a revenue hole as deep as $27 billion.

The Tea Party Caucus, according to Embry, includes about a third of the House and two senators.

The citizen advisors – 13 Tea Party organizers from around the state acknowledge that the alternatives include “largerthandesired cuts in public education,” but they claim that spending the Rainy Day Fund now would amount to “burying our heads in the sand” about the state’s budgetary future. They say that the Rainy Day Fund should be set aside, instead, for coverage of hurricanes, floods or terrorist attacks and for a financial buffer to allow the state to maintain a high bond rating.

These people already have their heads buried in the sand, so deeply they may never emerge.

For starters, a credit analyst for no less a fiscally conservative organization than Standard & Poor’s, the major bond rating agency, has recommended both “revenue enhancements” and spending cuts as the preferred, balanced approach to digging out of Texas’ financial crisis.

Secondly, a big chunk – about $10 billion – of the $27 billion shortfall is a structural deficit in the school finance system, brought about by the 2006 school finance law, which won’t go away if it is ignored this session.

And, a growing number of parents and other voters around the state are demanding that the Legislature spend at least part of the Rainy Day Fund to avoid stuffing kids into overcrowded classrooms and closing neighborhood schools, which is what will happen if the shortfall is met with budget cuts alone.

In case you don’t know by now, TSTA believes the Legislature should spend all $9.4 billion in the Rainy Day account, close outdated tax exemptions and raise new revenue to minimize cuts to education and other critical public services.

Rep. John Zerwas, a conservative Republican who is the point man for health and human services on the House Appropriations Committee, also knows how important health care and education are to millions of Texans and says he is ready to spend as much as $8 billion of the Rainy Day Fund.

As he noted in an interview with The Texas Tribune the other day, he dare not go home after passing a budget with drastic cuts, if the Legislature also leaves most of the Rainy Day money in the bank.

Were that to happen, he said, “I’m going to get a spanking.”

Zerwas has a sense of political self preservation, which means he is trying to govern, not simply pontificate.

Slandering Robin Hood

I can remember when the legendary Robin Hood was considered a hero for trying to give poor folks a break. How quaint that idea sounds in today’s climate of corporate greed and conservative Texas politics. The latest bad idea to emerge from the latter (if the current state of Texas politics can be separated from corporate greed, and I am not sure that it can) is state Rep. Gary Elkins’ constitutional amendment to remove Robin Hood from Texas’ school finance system.

The amendment (HJR 104) actually is the regurgitation of an old idea that already was bad when thenstate Rep. (nowCongressman) John Culberson trotted it out years ago. Essentially, the amendment – if approved by the Legislature and Texas voters – would remove the courts from any oversight over the school finance system, leaving decisions over how to pay for the public schools in the hands of the Legislature and the governor alone. If that thought doesn’t terrify the average Texas voter – particularly given the slashandburn mentality of the current state leadership – nothing will.

Elkins, of course, is trying to tap into unhappiness over the socalled “Robin Hood” school finance law, which was enacted in 1993 to comply with a Texas Supreme Court order for more equity in funding among Texas’ school districts. The law requires wealthier districts to share property tax revenue with poorer districts. It was enacted when Democrat Ann Richards was governor and Democrats were still in control of the Legislature, and was tagged with the “Robin Hood” nickname by Republicans seeking to make it a political issue.

But it was later upheld by both Republicans and Democrats on the Texas Supreme Court in an opinion written by thenJustice John Cornyn, now the Republican junior U.S. senator from Texas.

More importantly, the law, although farfromperfect, has improved educational opportunities for tens of thousands of school kids in propertypoor districts. Before the courts intervened in the 1980s, the state’s poorest school districts were grossly illequipped, paid their teachers minimum salaries and struggled to offer the educational basics. And, these districts weren’t limited to the poverty belt along the Mexican border. They were all over the state. Many were in rural areas with little or no commercial or industrial wealth to tax.

It is the Legislature’s and the governor’s fault not the courts’ – that the public has grown increasingly unhappy over the Robin Hood law. Lawmakers need to quit shirking their existing constitutional duty to provide for the public schools and enact an adequate, as well as equitable, system of state education funding – instead of trying to shove Texas backwards by a quarter of a century. They need to quit passing the school finance buck to local taxpayers via Robin Hood and misplacing the blame.

For all its faults, Robin Hood has been a hero to many Texas schoolchildren. The villains are sitting in the state Capitol.

Trying to avoid a “spanking”

There is still a very long way to go in the Legislature’s budgetwriting process, but eversosteadily, a sense of sanity (or political preservation) is growing under the Capitol dome. (At least under the legislative portion of the dome, anyway.)

The latest example occurred this morning with Rep. John Zerwas, the point man for health and human services on the House Appropriations Committee, said he would spend most of the Rainy Day Fund to lessen cuts in health care, education and other critical public services.

During a Liveblog appearance with The Texas Tribune, Zerwas said he would come close, perhaps within $1 billion, of spending all the Rainy Day Fund because “it’s raining.” With the fund projected to have a record balance of $9.4 billion by the end of the next budget cycle, Zerwas presumably is talking about spending about $8 billion.

TSTA believes the Legislature should spend all $9.4 billion as well as find additional revenue to minimize the potential spending reductions that threaten the jobs of thousands of educators, the quality of classroom instruction and the health of tens of thousands of school kids.

But Zerwas is making a big step in the right direction.

The governor, when last we heard, was still preaching cuts, cuts and more cuts, while talking about “protecting” the Rainy Day Fund, rather than spending it. Protect it from what?

If he goes home after passing a budget with devastating service cuts, while leaving most of the Rainy Day Fund in the bank, Zerwas said, “I’m going to get a spanking.”

And so should they all.