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Austin School Board Approves Three-Year Teacher Contracts

Tonight's board meeting starts at 7 p.m. at AISD headquarters.
Photo by Nathan Bernier/KUT News
The Austin School Board is scheduled to vote Monday whether to go from one-year to three-year teacher contracts

Update:  The Austin School Board voted to reinstate three-year contracts for teachers and principals in a five to four vote Monday night. At the same meeting, school district officials also proposed to to close a projected $32 million budget gap for Fiscal Year 2015. 

The decision to move to three-year contracts comes after the school district and teacher's union, Education Austin, came to an impasse over the issue last month. Austin ISD went from three to one year contracts in 2011, when the state legislature cut billions in public education funding, also forcing the district to lay off more than 1,000 employees.

For Education Austin, three year contracts would provide job security to teachers during a time when the school district is not able to provide pay raises. But the school district says it cannot afford to commit to three-year contracts as it faces declining enrollment, rising costs and increased projections in the amount of money Austin ISD must send back to the state for recapture.  

Since Austin ISD is considered a property wealthy district, it must send a certain amount of taxpayer dollars back to the state, known as the Robin Hood law, to go to property poor districts in Texas. 

According to Austin ISD, by the 2017-2018 academic year, the district will send a projected $272 million back to the state, a nearly $150 million dollar increase from current levels. 

First, second and third year teachers will still be under probationary contracts. According to Michael Houser, AISD's Human Resources officer, about 6,000 employees qualify for three-year contracts.

Trustees Tamala Barksdale, Gina Hinojosa, Jayme Mathias, Robert Schneider and Ann Teich voted for three-year contracts. Trustees Cheryl Bradley, Amber Elenz, Lori Moya and Vincent Torres voted against the motion.

Update (7:09 p.m.): More than 100 teachers gathered outside the Austin Independent School District Monday evening, chanting their support of three year contracts as the school board gets ready to vote on the issue. The teacher's union, Education Austin, wants the district to reinstate three year contracts, while the district wants to remain at one-year contracts for financial reasons, among others. 

Last month, the district and Education Austin, declared an impasse over the issue. According to Austin ISD policy, when an impasse is declared, the board president must appoint a three-member Board Impasse committee to hear both sides and give a recommendation to the final board. 

Last Monday, the committee recommended the district keep one-year contracts in a 2-1 vote. Committee members Lori Moya and Amber Elenz voted in support of one-year contracts, while Trustee Tamala Barksdale said she would be in support of three-year contracts. 

Original Story (February 22, 2014): The Austin ISD Board of Trustees is scheduled to vote Monday whether to extend the length of teacher contracts, after the district and the teacher’s union, Education Austin, declared an impasse over the issue last month.

But some community members and parents are worried the district can’t afford to extend contracts, as it must figure out how to close an estimated $32 million dollar budget gap in next year’s budget.

“The legislature has cut funding per pupil for Austin ISD, we’ve sent more money than we ever have to the state in Robin Hood recapture,” says Drew Scheberle with the Austin Chamber of Commerce. “So digging a deeper financial hole is the real problem.”

AISD switched from three-year to one-year contracts in 2011, when it faced budget cuts from the state legislature. Not only did the district reduce the length of teacher contracts, it also laid off more than 1,000 employees.

“If anything, the financial situation has gotten worse,” says Scheberle.

But Ken Zarifis with Education Austin says there are other reasons the board approved one-year contracts.

“AISD insisted on going to one-year contracts because, bottom-line, it makes it easier to terminate,” he says. “It is not about growth. It is not about improving the profession. It is not about putting the best teacher in front of every single kid.”

Texas’ Robin Hood Law

Since Austin is considered a wealthy district, property-wise, it must return money to the state every year to go to property poor districts in Texas, also known as Robin Hood.

According to Austin ISD, by the 2017-2018 academic year, the district will send a projected $272 million back to the state, a nearly $150 million dollar increase from current levels, doubling the projected budget gap.

“Trustees are supposed to be the fiscal stewards but they don’t run the state. We don’t keep our funding. We send $130 million to the state [this year],” says Scheberle. “Get mad at a legislature that cut Austin ISD nine percent per pupil.”

Zarifis, with Education Austin, says recapture is a reality the district has dealt with for the last 15 to 20 years and there are other ways to find money, like a Tax Ratification Election (TRE) or reviewing academic programs, “to evaluate how successful or how well they are meeting kids’ needs and how they’re delivering on their promises. We need to tighten our belt. We need to make difficult choices.”

Zarifis says this is about making a commitment to teachers when the district doesn’t have the money to increase salaries.

“They’re working with the kids every day,” he says. “Our district claims to care about teachers. This is one small way to show that. Don’t just talk about it anymore. Let’s do something about it.”

‘Today is Just Not the Time’

Not only does the district project declines in funding, it also projects a decline in enrollment and increases in employee health benefits and increased costs for things like electricity and gas.

“If our budget was more stable, if we knew we were growing, if we knew we didn’t have a financial burden to worry about, I would say do it,” says AISD parent Monica Sanchez. “Today is just not the time for a three-year contract.”

According to a district survey, Fort Worth ISD is the only urban school district in the state to offer multiple-year teacher contracts, with no nearby districts offering multiple-year teacher contracts.

In 2011, the decision to reduce contract length was unanimous, but today’s school board seems to be divided on the issue. In 2012, four new board members were elected, changing the dynamics of the school board.

Three of the four new members, Gina Hinojosa, Jayme Mathias and Ann Teich, received campaign donations from Education Austin ranging from $5,000 to $19,000. Sanchez says to her, that’s a conflict of interest, but Trustee Hinojosa says that’s an unfair assessment.

“Before I ever ran for the school board I sat with organized teachers, with the union, to demand from the school board better health insurance coverage. I just firmly believe empowered teachers are better advocates for our kids. That’s why I support teachers’ rights in this instance,” she says.

Ann Teich and Jayme Mathias did not return calls for comment before KUT’s deadline.

Declaring an Impasse

According to AISD policy, whenever the union and the district can’t agree on contractual issues, the dispute goes before the school board for a final vote.

The board president appoints three people to a Board Impasse Committee to review both sides and make a recommendation to the full board.

On Monday, the committee recommended the district continue to offer one-year contracts, with Committee President Tamala Barksdale as the sole vote for three-year contracts. Trustees Amber Elenz and Lori Moya voted to keep one-year contracts.

Barksdale did not return multiple requests for comment.

However, Trustee Hinojosa says she’s inclined to support three-year contracts.

“If this means that when a teacher is deciding between Austin ISD and Del Valle or Pflugerville they say, ‘Well here, I’m going to get this time and space to develop my teaching skills to be the best teacher I can be. So I’m going to choose Austin,’ then that is an investment worth making,” she says.

Hinojosa says the district estimates three-year contracts would only cost an additional $500,000 over three years in legal fees to defend decisions to terminate a contract before it ends.

A Rushed Process?

While Education Austin says it has been in discussions with the district over three-year contracts since November of last year, parents feel the discussion was only made public recently, with little opportunity to voice public opinion.

“These trustees came on board stating that they wanted to include the entire community when major decisions like this are being made,” says parent Monica Sanchez. “I haven’t been called from the trustees to ask for my opinion. I don’t know any other parents who have been called.”

Zarifis says terms of employment should be entirely between the school district and the union, which he says was elected by members to represent them in contract negotiations. But Trustee Hinojosa says she understand why people are frustrated with a lack of community engagement.

“The administration’s position has been that this process is somewhat of a closed process by which the administration and board president claim that board members were prohibited from engaging community outside of this process,” Hinojosa says.  “I never agreed with that assessment or interpretation.”

Monday’s meeting will be the first time the public will be able to comment on the impasse before the board makes a decision.

Ensuring High Quality Teachers

School Board Trustee Robert Schneider says he hasn’t decided how he’s going to vote in Monday’s meeting, but says the district needs to make sure it has the highest quality teachers in the classroom.

“If you are picking the right teachers and you’re working with them to make sure they’re meeting expectations at the campus level and program level, than your money is better off spent keeping those teachers,” Schneider says. “Whether it’s through a three-year contract or however else you can choose to incentive it.”

He says the board still has a lot to discuss before he makes a final decision.

“You wouldn’t want to give a blanket three-year contract for everyone starting tomorrow because the argument you can’t afford that is right. But how you implement it and what time frame you implement it in is the thing I’d like to see some discussion about.”

This article stated three-year contracts would cost the district $500,000 a year in legal fees. It will cost the district that amount over three years.

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