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FEATURE Fund and Games Will the Lege cheat on school finance? BY EMILY PYLE 11 exas children went back to school this fall in districts strained almost to the breaking point. School boards scrambled all summer to balance district finances, laying off teachers, aides, and office workers, jettisoning enriched curriculum, and delaying the purchase of vital supplies. The Austin Independent School District cut about 650 positions, slashing nearly one third of its elementary art, music, and PE teachers. The district’s average pay raise of 1.2 percent left most teachers making less than they did last year, once you factor in state cuts to teacher health insurance premiums. Despite the district’s financial woes, the state also hit up AISDa so-called propertywealthy districtfor $158 million in recapture payments under the 1991 wealth equalization system known as “Robin Hood.” San Antonio’s Northside Independent School District, a property-poor to offset losses in state funding that accompany their declining enrollments. With no way to raise additional revenue, they are all forced to cut costs. “Whether you’re wealthy or poor, everybody is experiencing a great deal of strain,” says Karen Soehnge, director of governmental relations for the Texas Association of School Administrators. Despite urging from legislators to trim the fat, most districts can’t cut much closer to the bone. “Reducing supplies doesn’t make a lot of difference,” Soehnge says. “The only way you can take the strain off the budget is in personneloffice staff, administrators, eventually teachers.” The problem, say school finance expertsat least, those outside the statehouseis simple. There is just not enough money in the system. The state currently pays for about 38 percent of the cost of educating its children, with the rest district that received almost $19 million in Robin Hood money in 2003, also had a bad budgeting year. The district carved $22.7 million from this year’s budget by raising student-teacher ratios, freezing salaries, and cutting almost 200 positions, including teachers and counselors. Budget cuts this deep, and deeper, were the norm this fall. In a state that will likely add at least 90,000 new students in the next few years, where educators are expected to boost TAKS scores ever higher, the schools are simply running out of money. Between 700 and 800 districts are at or near the stateimposed $1.50 property tax cap. Districts with low property wealth, like San Antonio’s Northside, must tax at the cap just to keep their schools afloat. Property-wealthy districts tax at the cap to compensate for their staggering recapture payments. Urban districts raise taxes to pay the high costs of their bilingual and economically disadvantaged students; rural districts, 4 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 12/19/03