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School Districts Want Flexibility for Furloughs and Firings

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Update below.

The language of the Texas Legislature is so distinct, the body might consider making its own version of Rosetta Stone. That’s especially true when it comes to state spending. For instance, in legislatese, “looking for efficiency” translates to budget cuts. 

And in Tuesday’s Senate Education Committee hearing on school mandates, we learned that in the legislative tongue, giving schools “flexibility” actually means removing the expensive parts of education regulations. And whoa boy, is that ever popular with lawmakers and superintendents alike.

The all-day meeting centered around the needs of superintendents and school districts. And with the committee room filled to the brim and an overflow room that quickly became standing-room only, it felt like just about every superintendent in the state was at the hearing. Both the House and Senate are starting with draft budgets that cut upwards of $9 billion in funding to school districts. (The House version cuts about $500 million more.) No matter how you slice it, that’s a significantly smaller pie that school districts will be getting. So small, in fact, that it doesn’t meet the current state obligations; lawmakers will have to pass a school finance reform bill this session that gets them out of their current obligations to schools. In our legistlative Rosetta Stone, they’d translate that to say “we can’t give schools as much money as we’ve already said they need—so we’ll just change how much we have to give them.”

But instead of demanding the state pony up, most of the witnesses to the Education Committee focused on where school districts could cut—if only the state would let them. There were two consistent requests: raising class-size limits, and reforming the ways to hand out furloughs and pink slips to teachers. Senators seemed amenable, which is good news to school district accountants, who have to balance books. What wasn’t clear was whether it was good news for teachers and parents.

State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, already has a bill that adds an two extra students to the class-size limit, raising it from 22 students per teacher to 24. The limit currently only applies to kindergarten through fourth grade. Superintendent after superintendent filed up to explain why that might help them, from districts as big as Dallas and as small as Millsap (you can find it on a map later).

Then there were requests around layoffs. Currently it’s rather difficult to terminate teachers. The costs of a hearing and appeal can be tough, particularly on small school districts, and the notification schedule requires that teachers be told 45 days before the end of the school year that they won’t be back the next. That means teachers find out they’re fired just before the testing season kicks in.

Furloughing isn’t much easier. Under current law, teacher contracts must include 187 days of work. Since the school year is only 180, that includes seven non-teaching days. Cheryl Mehl, the past president of the Council of School Attorneys , argued the senators should amend the requirement and refer to months rather than days. That would give districts more ability to shorten the teaching calendar and save money on the new non-work days.

Mehl put this in the best possible light, saying, “It’s time frankly for Texas to move away from the notion that our teachers are day laborers.” One might ask whether they’d prefer to be day-laborers with 187 days of work or salaried professionals bringing home less money.

State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, looked bemused at Mehl’s suggestions on balancing the budget. “There’s another way to do it,” he said. “The state could shoulder its responsibility and fully fund public schools.”

Many of the supers tended to agree. “We’re in it with you,” Doug Killian of Hutto Independent School District told the senators, “but I’d like to have someone standing behind me.”

H.D. Chambers, the superintendent at Stafford Municipal School District, was more direct in his demands that the state dip into the Rainy Day Fund, a $9 billion piggy bank that many Republicans have been hesitant to tap. “I haven’t used my fund balance yet,” he quipped, “cause I’m holding out till the state uses theirs.”

Update: Sen. Dan Patrick’s class limit bill also sets a district average of 21 students per teacher, while creating a hard cap of 24. His bill will also do away with the waivers, currently passed out readily when a district is going to go over the current 22 student to teacher limit.