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School districts brace for large cuts in funding
With Texas facing a budget deficit that could be as much as $27 billion, the Texas Legislature is going to have to make severe cuts in order to balance the budget. With cuts to education almost certain, educators throughout the state are left wondering just how severe the reductions will be.
“The initial news coming out of Austin is pretty dreary,” said Julie Thannum, executive director of communications and marketing for Carroll ISD. “It sounds like it may be a lot more drastic than we first anticipated. However, I think they may just be throwing everything against a wall to see what sticks. I think we will see the cuts be less than what we are seeing now, but no one can really predict how much the cut is going to be.”
The House of Representative’s version of the Summary of Legislative Budget Estimates calls for a $6.7 billion cut to the Texas Education Agency, a 13.4 percent decrease.
The 2010-11 Carroll ISD budget included a $2.3 million shortfall, which the district covered by using money from its fund balance. Prior to the budgeting process the budget was about $4 million, but cuts to areas including travel and administration took $2.1 million off the deficit. Thannum said the district is not sure what kind of deficit the district will face for 2011-12.
“We talked to some experts and they speculated that Carroll could lose $3 million in our local budget, but that was with only $2 billion in cuts to education,” Thannum said. “Recently the financial experts said it will be worse than we thought. If the state cuts $5 billion, our scenarios don’t look good at all. If that occurs, we could be looking at $7.8 to $9.8 million in budget cuts.”
CISD trustees have said they have already eliminated all of the “low-hanging fruit” from the budget, and the cuts to this year’s budget will be more painful. Trustees have said they will look at all areas in order to come up with budget cuts, including possibly laying off district staff.
One area district has already taken steps to reduce staff in order to cut money from the budget. At the Plano ISD Board of Trustees meeting last week, trustees approved a reduction in force that is estimated to save the district $1.4 million. Some of the positions that will be eliminated are vacant and they consist of central and support staff, not classroom personnel.
“It is one of the last things that we ever want to do. Unfortunately, our backs are up against the wall on this one,” said PISD Trustee Missy Bender. “This is only the tip of the iceberg in our community and across the state. I think it is a very sad time for our state and our community, and we consider this action with a very heavy heart.”
Even with classroom teachers surviving this round of layoffs, Danny Modisette, deputy superintendent for PISD, said the district might have to eliminate classroom positions later in the budget process depending on the size of the budget deficit.
State Rep. Vicki Truitt, whose district includes much of Northeast Tarrant County, said the budget will be hard to balance, but it will get done.
“In 2010, voters sent a clear message that they wanted smaller government and no new taxes,” Truitt said. “In order to address the shortfall without raising taxes, the Legislature is going to have to take a sober, thoughtful approach to how we prioritize our dollars. We are at the beginning of our discussion and Texas House members will have to make some difficult decisions and choices. This new budget takes an honest look at spending at all areas of government and will help us find savings and greater efficiencies to fund our core missions. Achieving a balanced budget is difficult but it is doable, and we will be focused on that during the upcoming days and months of the 82nd legislative session.”
Truitt said the initial budget drafts will be adjusted in the coming months to determine the final amount of cuts affecting not only education, but other state services as well.
In addition to looking at ways to cut the budget, Carroll ISD and other districts throughout the state are being proactive. CISD is collecting letters from district residents which will be hand-delivered to the Legislature.
“We are asking for postcards and letters and are providing our taxpayers some talking points and sample letters,” Thannum said. “We realize education is a large piece of the budget pie, but we don’t want to balance the budget on the backs of the schoolchildren. We want the lawmakers to realize that people don’t want this.”
Thannum mentioned how Carroll ISD is fighting for more control over its tax dollars, something that is also an issue in Plano and other “Robin Hood” districts that send tax dollars to the state to fund property-poor school districts.
Plano ISD Board President Lloyd Jenkins said changes need to be made to the way public education is funded in Texas.
“What we do in this district is not matched by many in this state and nation,” Jenkins said. “And we are going to need support to continue. If [budget cuts to public education] should continue for a couple more biennium, it will effectively destroy public education in the state of Texas and the city of Plano.”
Staff writer Zach Markovic contributed to this story.