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Austin ISD will make cuts at Central Office instead of reducing class periods at middle and high schools

Gabriel C. Pérez

The Austin Independent School District said it will not reduce the number of class periods at the middle and high school levels next year — a proposal floated as a way to save money.

“I wanted to lower everyone’s anxiety and let everyone know before the winter break that we would be maintaining an eight-period, A/B block schedule for all of our secondary schools,” Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde said Monday.

Two weeks ago, the district sent an email to staff, saying it was considering reducing the number of class periods for middle and high school students from eight to seven classes. The email said the change would save the district $21 million.

There was pushback almost immediately from teachers, students and parents. Many were worried the reduced class periods would mean teacher layoffs and less participation in elective classes.

“The very first thing I thought of when I read that [email] was, ‘OK, well, that’s it for fine arts’,” said Stephen Howard, the band director at the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders. “We’re toast.”

With fewer classes in the day, he figured, students wouldn't take as many electives. That eventually would lead the district to lay off fine arts staff because they wouldn't have as many students in their classes.

Howard and many other community members voiced these concerns to the superintendent over the last two weeks.

At a press conference Monday, Elizalde said the feedback, as well as conversations with principals, helped her and staff decide not to pursue that option.

The original proposal came as one way for the district to balance its budget. AISD administrators must present a proposed budget for the school board to vote on in June.

Elizalde said there must be dramatic spending cuts. For the last few years, the district has been running a deficit and pulling from its reserves. It can no longer afford to do that.

Instead of changing the schedule, Elizalde said, the district will make cuts at Central Office. She said AISD will not fill every position when people quit.

“So, essentially I have a hiring freeze at Central Office, and we are evaluating each department,” she said. “There could be maybe 10-15 individuals in our Central Office where the positions could be eliminated at the end of [next year], and they will be notified in January that that would be taking place.”

Despite the need for cuts, Elizalde said she wants next year’s budget to include staff raises. With the savings from cuts at the Central Office, she wants to give teachers a 2% raise and add $1,000 to teacher base pay. She also wants to increase the minimum wage for classified employees (food service workers, custodians, teaching assistants) from $13.5 to $16 an hour.

She said she wants to show teachers they are valued after everything they’ve dealt with during the pandemic.

"We want to ensure that we provide something meaningful to them,” she said.

Elizalde said the district is closely monitoring staffing levels — right now, there are too many teachers for the number of students enrolled. It might not fill positions if people resign next summer.

“A teacher does not need to worry about their job,” Elizalde said. “We may have to shuffle people around because we might have to meet student needs, but everyone will be able to keep their jobs.”

She said she and her staff still need to come up with more ideas to reduce the deficit before bringing a budget proposal to the school board.

AISD is also considering changes to its calendar, including adding two new holidays and giving teachers more days off to help with burnout. It has also proposed ending the school day one hour early one day a week to give teachers more time to plan and meet. The school board will vote on those changes Thursday.

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Claire McInerny is a former education reporter for KUT.
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