Texas Finances in Tatters, State Tells HISD It's "The New Normal"

Chief Financial Officer Melinda Garrett passed on the new buzz phrase coming out of the state capital at today's Houston ISD workshop session: "The New Normal," which is being used to explain that the current state budget crisis isn't a transitory thing but something that will be with us a long time.

"The way they built the budget the last time, there's no way to correct what they did," she told trustees. HISD has estimated its potential funding losses at between $202 and $348 million a year; it gets about 35 percent of its funding from the state.

Rising to the challenge, and the "tumultuous times," trustee Larry Marshall proclaimed that "We may have to eliminate all magnets because they are luxury items."

There was a moment of silence before the discussion moved on to other matters.

Human Resources Director Ann Best presented an "early notification incentive" proposal that would pay teachers $500 to $2,500 depending on their years of service for letting the district know they planned to leave. If they didn't get the notification in before the district gave them a pink slip, they wouldn't get the money.

Attorney David Thompson said the state specifically prohibits districts "from doing a retirement incentive." And Superintendent Terry Grier insisted that "principals could not use this as a way to bully teachers into resigning." Best agreed that "The purpose of this is not to change behavior but to find something out."

It's fairly apparent that HISD won't be leading any bandwagon to retain the class size protections in elementary grades. Garrett said that if school districts aren't allowed flexibility away from the 22-to-1 student-teacher ratio in grades K through 4, then middle and high schools will have to bear even more of the burden from financial cutbacks.

HISD would like to be able to look at teacher furloughs or pay cuts. Instead, under Chapter 21 of the state code, "literally the only option school districts have is to terminate people," Thompson said.

Also, the district is about to get stuck for $5.7 million to pay the salaries of 89 continuing contract teachers who won't actually be teaching because they don't have an assignment, Grier and Best said. Grier wants the ability to order principals to accept many of these teaches at their schools, even though he said he doesn't really like doing this.

But other than 19 teachers who were moved out of the Apollo 20 schools, Grier said these teachers are good ones, who'll be out of jobs through no fault of their own because the federal stimulus money will be gone. "We've got to have as a central staff the flexibility to place these folks," he said.

There is still a discussion of delaying payments and pushing them off into the 2013 biennium in the hope that things will improve by then and it won't be such a hardship to pay their bills.

Thompson corrected Grier's characterization of the Legislature's Rainy Day Funds as one-time funds that are used up and gone forever. "It replenishes," Thompson said. "I think we used nearly all of it in 2003. The Rainy Day Fund is intended to follow the cycle of the economy." He also pointed out that the federal stimulus money of two years ago is the only thing that made the HISD budget (and many other districts') work then.

Governor Rick Perry has declared his opposition to tapping into any of the rainy day funds.

Trustee Harvin Moore, obviously frustrated, referred to the "failed partnership" between the state and its public school districts. He pointed out that the state constitution commits to the importance of education. Later in the day, the HISD board signed on to a resolution calling on state legislators to make education a top priority.

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