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HISD Cuts Millions, May Not Be Enough

Big, skeptical crowd at HISD budget-cuts meeting
Big, skeptical crowd at HISD budget-cuts meeting
Margaret Downing

Last night was an elected official's nightmare. Not only did Houston ISD trustees vote to significantly reduce funding for the district's kids and schools, to clear the way to cut hundreds of teachers' jobs, and to potentially close at least four schools -- but they told a room filled to overflowing with parents, students and educators that they may still have to cut $64.7 million more.

There were few raised voices in the lengthy meeting -- other than a couple of speakers (Kesha Rogers resurfaces!) who blamed the funding crisis on the banking system and the global economy -- but there was some real anguish, eloquently expressed, by trustees and their audience as they wrestled with how to tackle an anticipated $171 million shortfall -- the devastating fallout from the state of Texas's budget crisis.

The amount of money given to each school was decreased by $275 per student to about $3,260 starting in fall 2011, resulting in a $58.4 million savings. HISD statistics say for a school with 1,200 students, this results in $345,000 less in fund "which equates to the average salaries of 6.5 teachers." The Aspire teacher bonus program was cut by $4.6 million. The small school subsidy was cut by $2.4 million.

Houston Federation of Teachers President Gayle Fallon came out swinging, accusing the board of "a willingness to just throw teachers under the bus whenever there's an economic problem." How can the district talk about cutting teacher jobs when, she says, the board keeps talking about "how important teachers are in how a child learns."

She once again asked them to consider a tax hike: "For every penny you save 192 teaching jobs. ...You might cut the teachers bonus program because if you pay salaries, you shouldn't be paying bonuses." And she asked them to at least partially access the district's own $84 million rainy day fund.

Cutting teachers and cramming kids into larger classes is going to mean a loss of learning, she predicted, because teachers won't be as effective as they could be. Instead, they'll be "too busy doing crowd control."

Teacher Elena Saner-Greer said she is upset about an idea that's been floated around about cutting teachers' salaries by 5 percent. Teachers already don't make enough money, especially in Texas, she said. It took her 15 years of teaching to match what her sister, an RN, made in her first year. Teachers already give and give to their students, paying for classroom costs and student needs out of their own pockets. She also urged a tax increase.

Trustee Harvin Moore denied that HISD trustees haven't put teachers at the top of their list and compared their actions to other districts. "Dallas ISD decided to announce 5,000 teacher layoffs. Dallas is much smaller. Austin is a relatively tiny district, they said 1,000," Moore said. HISD hasn't projected any specific numbers, but a 1,000 to 1,200 range has been mentioned in workshop meetings. Moore also said he has suggested a 3 percent, not 5 percent reduction in pay that would include administrators and he says "would save 500 jobs."

An amendment offered by trustee Anna Eastman and approved unanimously by the board specified that if the state somehow comes back with more money than expected, whatever money is gained will be returned to the campuses.

A number of parents and teachers from Love Elementary protested it being placed on a list of four schools singled out for possible consolidation or closure. They argued that the Heights-area school has been increasing its numbers amid changing demographics and with an enrollment of 425 students, Love has not fallen beneath the 400-student threshold to justify it as a school.

Eastman led the successful effort to separate Love from the other schools being considered for closure or consolidation (Grimes, McDade and Rhoades elementaries), but after several votes, the result was the same: All will be reviewed for possible closure or consolidation for what HISD's administration says would be a savings of $1.7 million.

The board will also consider $45 million in cuts to its central office at its March 24 meeting. But it is waiting on closing the final gap remaining until it is sure what the Legislature will do. Previously, Governor Perry has been adamant that the state's rainy day fund won't be touched, but one of his aides told reporters Thursday that the governor is not completely against tapping into the money, given the extent of the state's budget crisis.


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