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Lawmakers Scale Back Education Cuts But AISD Still Troubled

Photo by Nathan Bernier for KUT News
Austin ISD Superintendent Meria Carstarphen speaks to reporters school district financial chief Nicole Conley-Abram stands to the side, ready to answer more technical questions about the $94.4 million budget.

State Senators writing a spending plan for Texas approved a measure yesterday that would soften the blow to public education.  The initial budget bill called for a cut of almost $10 billion. Senator Florence Shapiro said school districts cannot absorb that punch.

"The monies necessary for public education would not be sustainable if we did the base bill, period, and there was no one that disagreed with that," Shapiro said during a Senate Finance Committee meeting. "Given that, we did the best we could, and we put what I think is a significant amount of money into the base bill."

Shapiro says they added $5.7 billion to the bill. But that still leaves Texas school districts $4 billion dollars short. And it doesn't take into account the cost of all those new students enrolling in Texas public schools.

Here in Austin, the Independent School District is predicting a deficit of $94.4 million. Superintendent Meria Carstarphen says the revised Senate spending proposal voted out of committee yesterday doesn't do much to alleviate that pain.

"We planned at that level to begin with. For us, even though there's a lot of changes that's happening, we know that we are baked at a certain level. We are really hoping that the final appropriations bill comes out in a way that keeps us in alignment with numbers more like that," Carstarphen said.

The worst case scenario projected by Austin ISD would see its budget slashed by $181 million, about twice the current projection.  School district leadership has been reluctant to talk openly about what that would mean for programs and positions. But at a public input session on the budget last night at Reagan High School, Carstarphen raised the specter of that Doomsday scenario.

"If we're looking at $181 million, we're going to have to put everything back on the table," Carstarphen said to about 100 people sitting on folding chairs in the high school cafeteria. "Because I will tell you this, cuts that large will fundamentally change for the rest of our lives how we do business in education in Austin."

The House budget bill still cuts public education by $8 billion, but even that is less severe than the first House proposal in January.  A clearer picture is likely to emerge over the next few weeks of exactly how the state will defund education and by how much.

In the meantime, Austin ISD is plowing ahead with its plans to lay off more than 11-hundred people, but still vowing not to close schools if the deficit doesn't grow beyond that $94 million.

The school board will vote on a final budget in June. The legislative session is scheduled to end May 30th.

KUT freelancers Cintia Morais and Ioli Campos produced this visual presentation of where the AISD budget was in February. Some details have changed since then but it has some useful background on the story.