January is School Board Recognition Month, and while board members received gift baskets and pictures drawn by children, the people who packed into last night’s school board meeting were in no mood to celebrate. During the public comment section of the board meeting, people responded to some of the most controversial budget reduction proposals – everything from laying off teachers and librarians to closing neighborhood schools.
But school closures were not on the menu last night. Board members were faced with a different set of unpleasant options. They involved changing staffing formulas to eliminate hundreds of teachers and dozens of librarians, among other employees.
In the end, the school board voted to eliminate 485 positions, most of them teachers. Fifty-two librarian jobs were saved. But saving those jobs means the school district now has to find $600,000 to cut elsewhere. And Superintendent Meria Carstarphen says it’s slim pickings.
“I mean we just have the worst things left,” Carstarphen said from the dias. “It would take a lot more from staff. We’re already talking about furlough days. You’re talking about increasing class size. It’s a lot. It’s as far as I think you can go in a school year.”
Budget cutting options also include reducing merit pay for teachers and eliminating a $25,000 performance bonus for Dr. Carstarphen. The district would also dip into its savings account to the tune of about $28 million.
AISD financial chief Nicole Conley-Abrams warned board members that the fund balance is not a Rainy Day Fund, and using it to avoid tough decisions now could impact the district’s future.
“You’re putting some sizable pressure on the fund balance that really puts us at risk of not being able to maintain our posture. I definitely think we’re at the tipping point,” Conley-Abrams said.
The layoffs are expected to save the district $26.5 million dollars. That’s only about one-quarter of the projected shortfall. Drew Scheberle with the Austin Chamber of Commerce says AISD should follow the goals set out in the strategic plan it adopted a year ago.
“The highest priority from the Chamber of Commerce is that we graduate 90 percent of our high school students,” Scheberle said. “That may mean that we have to give up some things. It’s more important though that students are ready, and that they have the table stakes to compete in Austin. That they can get the jobs that will support their family. That is a more important priority than almost anything else on the table.”
The 485 layoffs will not take effect until the next school year. Meanwhile, an AISD task force that proposed school closures as a cost saving measure is meeting again tonight.
Local education leaders are also hoping to appeal to state lawmakers for help. But those lawmakers are facings some tough choices of their own.