It was like the Grand Bazaar for schools.
Stretched out across the Austin Convention Center exhibition hall this weekend was every product a superintendent could imagine—from new computer software for teaching math and science to giant scoreboards for baseball and football stadiums. Dozens of construction companies and architectural firms had come with impressive displays to show why they would be the best option for designing or building schools. In the back, one company brought five actual buses, to show the array of transportation options. JC Penney even showed up with a rack of new school uniforms, presumably to appeal to the fashion savvy.
All told, hundreds upon hundreds of vendors hawked their products to the thousands of attendees, all members of the Texas Association of School Boards and the Texas Association of School Administrators. In many respects, it was just like the conventions every year—hundreds of meetings on a variety of topics, a few big name speakers and, of course, the giant exhibition hall.
But unlike in years past, school administrators in town are coping with unprecedented budget cuts from the state Legislature, exacerbating an already unwieldy and inequitable school finance system. There was a grim sort of humor to much of the event. Many of the convention’s breakout sessions focused on how to deal with slashes in funding for public schools. On Friday, the first day of the convention, there were meetings on how to reduce personnel costs, how the budget cuts functioned from a policy perspective and a couple on what districts were doing to cope with the lack of money. Saturday had a few sessions on holding successful bond elections and convincing voters to raise property taxes. Perhaps most surprising was a session from the Texas Education Agency, to help school administrators “get the support you need from the newly down-sized agency.”
The vendors in the exhibition hall were clearly sensitive to the lack of funds. Many were offering bargains and good deals—one massive back-to-school sale. Houston Independent School District was there to offer a consulting service to help districts maximize Medicaid reimbursements for educating eligible special needs students. Nearby, the company eInstruction explained why its Mobi devices were a better option than the computerized “smartboards” so many schools have opted for. “This is cheaper,” explained a salesman as he showed off the device’s capabilities. One company was offering to give away a free soundsystem to school districts that bought their product. And an eager bus security salesman explained the latest camera systems are only $500, as compared with older versions that cost as much as $2,600.
At one booth, advertising Joe Walch’s financial consulting services, an employee had taped up a sign offering “free money.” Turned out, they were offering help with tax elections. Walch, a school finane consultant, explained his complex “tax swap” plan that helped districts get more bang for their buck. But in a candid moment, he said, between the tremendous cuts and the alread unequal funding levels, the school-finance system in Texas was broken.
He isn’t the only one who thinks so. By 3 p.m., sellers began to pack up. Attendees were heading to the last set of breakout sessions for the day. Among the most popular: the session explaining just how school districts were planning to sue the state over its tattered school finance system.