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Meria Carstarphen

What school districts may do to respond to the budget cuts

They may raise taxes:

Some school officials also are considering even more unpopular options – increasing property tax rates or eliminating special tax breaks. In some cases, even those moves aren’t expected to raise enough money to plug the worst-case budget holes.

“Right now, nothing is off the table,” said Candace Ahlfinger, a spokeswoman for the Pasadena Independent School District, which could lose between $32 million and $53 million under the initial House budget plan.


Pasadena ISD – as well as Houston ISD, Spring Branch ISD, Cy-Fair ISD and about 200 other districts – have another way to increase revenues. Their school boards could decide to eliminate a special tax break, known as the optional homestead exemption, they have chosen to give property owners.

They will almost certainly deplete their own “rainy day funds”:

Under the House budget proposal, HISD could lose between $203 million and $348 million – up to a fifth of its budget – according to estimates from a consulting firm. [Chief Financial Officer Melinda] Garrett told the school board that she didn’t expect the House plan to be the final word but said the district had to prepare for the worst.

She said the board could decide to increase the tax rate by a few cents without going to voters because the district hadn’t hit the limit yet. Dipping into the district’s savings accounts – which total about $285 million – is another option, Garrett said.

Given that the cuts that will be made in this biennium will almost certainly have a ripple effect into the next biennium, districts will do this with extreme reluctance. But since the other option is firing a lot of people, what choice do they have?

News from the state Capitol of possible cuts to public education of $9.8 billion has prompted Austin school district officials to look at drastic measures that in previous tight budget years were inconceivable — including school closure, cutting pre-kindergarten programs and cutting hundreds of teaching positions.

In phone calls and letters today to district staff, Superintendent Meria Carstaphen announced that on Monday, she would ask the school board to approve staff changes that include cutting one-third of librarian positions and more than 300 classroom jobs.

The total number of jobs lost if something like the Pitts budget gets passed would be staggering.

In any bill introduced this session, ALL districts will be subject to cuts. When a school finance bill sponsor tries to line up votes, the first question he or she gets is: when do I get to see my printouts? The printouts tell members how their constituents will fare under the bill. This session, all of them lose.

So, how do you line up support for a bill that offers only pain?

“We’ve never had one of these before,” the noted school finance guru Lynn Moak told me. “How are you going to divide the shortfall and get people to vote for it?”

Moak believes that education cuts of $5 billion a year could lead to as many as 100,000 lay-offs across the state. Personnel accounts for 85 percent of school spending.

Do you suppose that 100,000 number will start to follow Rick Perry around? I sure think it should. It is what he wants to have happen.

UPDATE: Some more reactions from Dallas. This person will someday either be hailed as a visionary, or jeered as a fool:

Garland ISD Superintendent Curtis Culwell said his district is not changing plans based on the preliminary state figures.

“I call it the shock-and-awe budget,” Culwell said. “Having said that, I think everyone needs to temper their reaction because it’s not workable, not plausible and not in the best interest of Texas, today or tomorrow.”

I sure hope the Lege reaches the same conclusion.

Meria Carstarphen

Last week, the Chron had a profile of HISD Superintendent Terry Grier that looked at what he had accomplished and what people thought of him after 10 months on the job. This week, the Statesman has a profile of Austin’s Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, who is finishing up her first year on the job there, and I thought it would be interesting to compare.

In what could be considered one of the most dramatic years in recent district history, Carstarphen has made tough, and at times controversial, decisions. After the state announced it would close a second Austin school, Pearce Middle School, Carstarphen successfully presented a plan to reorganize and reopen the campus. She closed a $15 million 2009-10 budget shortfall. But a year after arriving to hear that the district had fallen short of federal standards for the first time, early results this year indicate Austin likely could fall short again.

Critics say that in dealing with emergencies, Carstarphen is too sensitive to questions, has occasionally moved too fast for the board and has yet to focus on areas of the district that are working well but deserve attention. Her supporters say she has been brave in her leadership and sensitive to the needs of district workers and students.

“She was dealt a pretty tough opening hand,” said Louis Malfaro, president of Education Austin, which represents about 4,000 of the district’s teachers and other employees. “She handled it pretty well, walking into the blast furnace. There was no lying by the pool. There was heat from the beginning.”

The main highlights are that Carstarphen appears to have better people skills than Grier – at the very least, there were no local politicians swearing opposition to her quoted in the story – and appears to have a better relationship with the local teachers union. I don’t know enough about Austin’s situation to know if either of these things are unusual for them, or if there’s some aspect to Carstarphen’s story that this article did not explore. I’m just presenting this here so you can see for yourself.