Report on Latest Budget Cuts Says Schools Can’t Go on Like This Forever

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PHOTO SOURCE: ALAMO HEIGHTS INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT ON FACEBOOK
An AHISD switch flipping to mark the completion of the district's solar power initiative in April of this year.

Last year, as you may recall, the Legislature cut $5.4 billion from the state’s public education budget. By now the effects are starting to show. The Houston nonprofit Children at Risk released a study last week that details just what those cuts have cost Texas students.

The report considers 81 school districts—8 percent of Texas’ districts, representing 36 percent of its students. It’s a diverse group, ranging from rural districts with only a few hundred students to giants like Houston and Dallas ISD, and it’s hard to draw broad conclusions. But the overall pattern is clear: across Texas, districts are growing their class sizes, letting teachers go and straining their infrastructure. They’re taking unsustainable measures and waiting for a salvation that may not come.

Districts get most of their money from local sources—bonds and property taxes—and state aid. These cuts only came from the state’s part, and on the surface they don’t look like much—just 3 percent of Texas’ total education spending.

But they came to a system already in crisis, with districts already struggling to cope with the last legislative “fix” to the school finance system, the “target revenue” system created in 2006 that already left some districts woefully underfunded. Last year’s cuts represented another shock to the system, though they’ve dealt with it differently. Texas’ school districts are fantastically diverse, with totally different needs and tax bases.

But there are some overarching themes. Most districts did anything possible to avoid cutting teachers or other core instruction costs. They cut electives, after-school programs and bus routes instead. They consolidated schools or tried to outsource or share administrative costs. Some adopted innovative new solutions: Alamo Heights ISD installed a number of green conservation techniques to cut utility bills—they’ve put solar panels on their roofs and sold surplus energy back to the utility providers. Two districts cooperated to get a better deal on after-school programming. Others won big nonprofit or corporate grants.

But mostly, the report found, districts covered budget shortfalls with unsustainable belt-tightening. The top three strategies were delaying maintenance, putting off tech upgrades, and freezing administrator salaries. Of these, putting off maintenance was the most popular—a solution that can only work so long. The fixes suggest a system waiting to be saved.

“While every dollar counts, even the most creative districts were only able to achieve comparatively small savings from these strategies with regard to total operating budgets,” the group found.

The problem is this: payroll expenses—mostly for teachers—make up about 80 percent of school spending. You can only cut so far before dipping into that. So in the last four years the state has lost 10,000 teaching positions—while adding 83,000 students. Teachers may not get laid off, but when they retire or leave, new ones aren’t rehired. The result is bigger classes, more work and longer hours for teachers, and reduced access to pre-K and after-school care.

Often, even this hasn’t been enough. After all their cuts and belt-tightening, one third of the districts surveyed still operated at a loss.

At a trial late next month, the state faces six combined lawsuits over the school finance system, from more than 500 districts representing 3 million Texas students. Schools can’t do much more than wait, and hope for help from the courts. The case is likely to wind all the way to the state Supreme Court, and even if the schools win their case, it’ll probably be well into 2013 before the Legislature is directed to fix the funding system.

As this study shows, that day can’t come soon enough for Texas school districts.