Austin ISD approves $1.9 billion budget — but nearly half of that money will go to the state
The Austin ISD board of trustees voted 7-2 early Friday to adopt a nearly $1.9 billion budget for the upcoming academic year.
School board President Geronimo Rodriguez Jr. noted it was the first balanced budget trustees have passed since 2017. Austin ISD had warned its bond rating could be at risk if the board decided to use cash reserves for the 2022-2023 budget.
Trustees Lynn Boswell and Noelita Lugo voted against the proposed budget.
"If you look at next year’s recapture payment — $846 million — a 10% discount would save us over $84 million, and we can do a lot for employees with $84 million."
Nearly half of the budget’s general fund will leave the district as a recapture payment to the state. The system, also known as “Robin Hood,” was started in the 1990s with the goal of transferring money from property-wealthy school districts to districts that do not get as much money from property taxes. Austin ISD has, by far, the largest recapture payment in Texas — paying more than the next three districts combined. It's set to pay nearly $846 million to the state next year. That's much more than the district anticipated because local property values soared.
Eduardo Ramos, Austin ISD’s chief financial officer, told trustees during the board meeting Thursday that the recapture payment presents a significant challenge to the district.
“That is where we as a district are taking the large hits and it continues to be a problem for us,” he said. Ramos pointed out that more districts in Central Texas are beginning to pay into the recapture system because of rising property values throughout the region.
Austin ISD had predicted property values would grow by 8%, but growth ended up being 18%. As a result, Austin ISD is paying almost $50 million more than expected into the system. Ramos said the district plans to ask the state for a discount for making the recapture payment on time.
“If you look at next year’s recapture payment — $846 million — a 10% discount would save us over $84 million,” Ramos said, “and we can do a lot for employees with $84 million.”
The district is confronting this massive recapture payment while also facing a high turnover rate. During the 2021-2022 academic year, 2,106 employees resigned. More employees left last year than during each of the previous three years.
“I left the district in this past year because of a lack of confidence in the district’s ability to make good decisions regarding working conditions for teachers,” Andrew Gonzales, who attended the board meeting in support of his former colleagues, said.
While the district approved pay increases for teachers, Gonzales said they’re not enough.
“My mother was a teacher in the district for 36 years,” he said, “and so I know what it’s like to be the child of an employee of the district that’s working on wages that’s not reflective of the amount of work that that person is putting into the job.”
“My mother was a teacher in the district for 36 years, and so I know what it’s like to be the child of an employee of the district that’s working on wages that’s not reflective of the amount of work that that person is putting into the job.”
The school board approved wage increases for bus drivers and librarians, in addition to teachers. Under the approved plan, teachers will get a $1,000 base pay increase and a 2% midpoint raise, meaning the raise is based on the middle of the pay range for that pay grade.
The budget also included a couple retention bonuses. One will give teachers who have been with the district for at least five years $500, while another gives full-time, active employees who are employed as of Sept. 1, 2022, a $2,000 retention stipend to be paid in two separate chunks during the year.
Ahead of the vote, Ken Zarifis, president of the union Education Austin, said the proposed raises did not go far enough.
“However, at this point in the year, and at this point in the budget process, we’ve come to an agreement with the district with the intention that next year we do more," he said.
Ramos said it’s Austin ISD’s goal to become the highest paying district for teachers in Central Texas in the next two to three years.
“Because we know that the cost of living in Austin is getting way, way up there,” he said. “So in order for us to attract our teachers and retain our teachers, we want to be very aggressive with our pay.”
Zarifis said Austin ISD also needs to raise the minimum wage to be competitive with other employers, especially because the City of Austin may be increasing its minimum wage to $22. The district proposed a $16 minimum wage – which the school board approved.
“The reality is that more money has to go to the workers who are making AISD function," he said.
Gonzales also criticized the $16 minimum wage, saying it fails to value a range of hourly employees, such as custodians, cafeteria workers and front office staff.
“If we’re going to prioritize the well-being of our children, we also have to prioritize the well-being of the people that take care of our children,” Gonzales said. “And anybody who works in school knows that all those people are vital to a strong, robust school community.”
One way the district intends to free up money for pay increases is by eliminating nearly 600 positions, many of them currently vacant and in the central office. Austin ISD also has federal pandemic relief dollars to help supplement the budget.
New plan for PE criticized
Teachers and some community members who provided public comment at the board meeting proposed a budget cut of their own: holding off on a plan requiring elementary school students to have physical education every day – a plan with a price tag of nearly $8 million.
“They’re spending $8 million that they could be spending elsewhere.”
The goal of the initiative was to give elementary teachers planning time while at work. Outgoing Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde said she thinks offering more planning time could be a way to retain and attract educators amid a teacher shortage.
But parents, teachers and trustees raised concerns about its implementation. Those concerns included whether schools had enough staff and space, whether there were appropriate accommodations for students receiving special education services and the time students could lose to art and music.
“They’re spending $8 million that they could be spending elsewhere,” Eric Ramos, a middle school special education teacher, said at the meeting. “They could be giving, not just teachers, but our hourly staff, [an] additional raise.”
Trustee Lugo sought to amend the budget to say Austin ISD should roll out this plan as a pilot program before implementing it districtwide. After intense debate, her motion failed. But, trustees vowed to hold the incoming interim superintendent, Anthony Mays, accountable for the plan’s rollout.
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