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HISD’s opening thoughts on dealing with budget cuts

It’s not going to be pretty, no matter how you slice it.

Fewer police officers would patrol school hallways, property taxes would rise, several campuses would close and about 300 central office jobs would be cut next year under HISD Superintendent Terry Grier’s initial cost-cutting proposals.

Grier asked the Houston school board on Thursday to consider increasing the property tax rate by up to 4 cents and reducing a tax discount known as the optional homestead exemption.

“Of course you can balance the budget without them,” Grier said of the tax proposals. “But you can’t balance the budget without them without having draconian cuts at the school level.”

Houston Independent School District officials are preparing for a shortfall of $171 million based on deep cuts in state funding. The amount could change as the Legislature finalizes the state budget, and the board isn’t expected to vote on a final budget until June.

The largest tax increase option Grier presented to the board would increase the rate by 4 cents from $1.1567 per $100 of assessed value and lower the homestead exemption to 15 percent from 20 percent. The exemption reduces the taxable value of the property.
Under that scenario, the tax bill for the owner of an average-priced home, $195,680, would increase by $173.70.

As noted before, HISD could actually raise the tax rate more than that. For a variety of reasons that won’t happen, not the least of which in my mind is the thought that they may find themselves in a similar position two years from now and want to keep some options open. Plus, I think Harvin Moore has it right:

Trustee Harvin Moore said it was a weak negotiating tactic to make decisions while state lawmakers have yet to amend their bare-bones budget proposals.

“I do not think it’s a good move to say, ‘Well, OK, we’re willing to cut this much or to raise taxes this much,’ ” he said. “The state’s going to say, ‘Well, that worked well.’ ”

And then the legislators that passed the budget that forced HISD and other school districts to raise their taxes will spend the next 18 months bragging about how they balanced their budget without raising taxes. It’s a sucker’s game.

Hair Balls has more on what HISD is considering, which is clearly still in the “run it up the flagpole and see who salutes” stage. There’s also the related and as yet unresolved matter of magnet schools, on which the budget issues will have some unknown effect.

In the meantime, some Senators are working on a way to help school districts delay decisions about firing teachers, while the debate about how much is spent on education administration continues on.

State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston and the vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee, called the 58,575 people employed in nonteaching support positions by Texas public schools —”your math department supervisors, your curriculum experts” — a “soft target” for budget cutters. Those positions “must be seriously addressed,” he said. “That number is not based on reality.”

According to Patrick, the ratio of teachers to nonteachers, which includes those employed in administrative and support capacities, in districts has grown to nearly 1 to 1 today from 4 to 1 in the 1970s.

But while it may be more palatable to think of those cuts as trimming bureaucratic fat rather than as damaging the vital organs of a school, there may be less to cut than lawmakers imagine, said Michael Griffith, a school finance expert with the Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan research organization. In reality, Griffith said, administrative spending “is not as bad as some of the rhetoric you’re hearing.”

“You might look at a school district and say ‘well, they have 35 people in their office doing administrative work, that seems excessive’ until you find out that 15 to 20 of them are actually paid for in federal grants,” he said. When districts receive Title I and IDEA grants, that money can also cover administrative costs, so cutting those positions doesn’t mean those dollars will go to saving teachers.

Griffith said, there is no “magic number” that reflects the optimal number of teaching to nonteaching personnel for districts, because it’s difficult to make comparisons across campuses. “The best you can see is if people compare their district to similar districts,” he said, “but that means having 1,200 separate little studies” in Texas.


Ed Fuller, a special research associate at the University of Texas, said that data from the National Center for Education Statistics showed that the number of central office administrators has actually decreased in Texas since 2003. The number of administrators per school is just below the national average, he said, and there is evidence that districts with more administrators may actually increase the effectiveness of schools.

In an analysis that used campuses’ scores in the Texas Comptroller’s recent Financial Accountability for Texas study — which rated schools and districts based on student achievement relative to spending — he found that the more central office administrators per school, the higher the FAST rating.

This could be true, Fuller said, because it could mean that school principals are receiving more guidance and therefore staying in their jobs longer and improving their abilities more rapidly. “If you don’t have enough central office administrators,” he said, “then principals don’t get the support they need.” He said preliminary results from a survey of principals in Texas suggests that this is accurate.

There’s something I’ll bet you’ve never heard before – I sure hadn’t. The existence of a correlation is by itself meaningless, but it sure would be interesting to see what a rigorous study might reveal. One other point that I often hear but which wasn’t raised in this story is that a lot of the jobs that Patrick is complaining about exist because of mandates by the state. All this accountability stuff we’ve laid on schools and school districts in recent years represents real work – data crunching, report writing, and so forth – that has to be done by someone. You can’t have it both ways.

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  1. martha says:

    “Trustee Harvin Moore said it was a weak negotiating tactic to make decisions while state lawmakers have yet to amend their bare-bones budget proposals.” While this makes sense, the only problem is that school districts, by law, must pass a budget by June 30. Most do so before that date – earlier in June. We won’t know how much the state will cut public education until late May at the earliest, and then there is the possibility of multiple special sessions.

    Many school districts already have their list of cuts well developed and are even beginning to notify staff that their positions won’t be in the 2011-2012 budget. Another law is that districts must notify teachers who are under contract of nonrenewal 45 days prior to the last day of instruction.

    So, HISD is running up against some legal deadlines to make specific decisions about budget cuts.

  2. […] are fighting back against sharp cuts in public education and other essential state services that are being planned by Governor Rick Perry and the Republican […]