School district leaders look to deal with budget gap

January 20, 2011 7:49:05 PM PST
State lawmakers are looking for ways to close the budget deficit without raising taxes and that means big cuts across the board. On Wednesday, we told you about the proposed $5 billion cut in education funds, and that has Houston school district leaders looking for ways to deal with the shortfall.

It's not the kind of reading Tonya Knauth likes on a blustery day. Instead, it motivates her to take a trip.

"I want to talk to my representative. I want to talk to him about where my priorities are and where his priorities are. I think the priority should be education," said Knauth.

She and other parents at Garden Oaks Elementary want to preserve their campus. Learning about proposed state cuts in funding is nothing short of alarming. She says there's no more room for cuts.

"Every year it's a question of how to make the most of the small budget we have and there are always projects that get cut that we would like to do for our children," said Knauth.

The gnashing of teeth continued all morning as the HISD trustees saw for the first time just how much money the state may cut from the district's budget, meaning district cuts would be significant.

"When you're looking at over $200 million, my gosh, that's almost 15, 20 percent of our budget; so nothing is off limits, everything is on the table," said Dr. Terry Grier, HISD Superintendent.

Preliminary numbers show HISD's budget faces cuts from $203 million to $348 million or more -- that's about one-fifth of the overall budget.

The proposed state cuts are deep and include: pre-K funding - about $4.8 million for HISD; teacher incentive funding - about $13 million for HISD; student success initiative or tutoring - about $2 million gone; and extended year funding cuts would mean just over $1 million gone from HISD's budget.

"Right now, the legislature is sending a message to voters that education is not important in Texas," said Gayle Fallon, President of the Houston Federation of Teachers.

The state comptroller estimates the Texas budget will be short $28.6 billion because of a decrease in sales tax revenue mixed with rising health insurance costs, utility costs and gasoline prices.

The HISD operating fund is nearly $1.66 billion, and they have to cut up to $348 million while working quickly. By law, HISD must have their budget finished by the end of June this year.

Earlier Thursday

HISD Superintendent Terry Grier met with trustees this morning to discuss what he says will be "turbulent times."

The board is looking at developing a budget to approve by the end of June. Unfortunately, the cuts they need to make are a moving target, depending on what the State Legislature approves and the proposed cuts are deeper than anyone can think of in recent memory, so this will turn out to be a much tougher task than usual.

Some of the cuts, as proposed, would likely come in the form of 'zeroing out' state grants. Some of those grants are being used by HISD to fund things like full day pre-K -- funding would remain in place for part-time pre-K, but grant funding could be affected for 180 classes that allows for full day -- and some summer school grant funding.

There's also a likely reduction of money coming from the Foundation School Program (one of the ways the state funds schools, reduced because of the lower revenue) and the loss of stimulus dollars.

There was some talk about the district's 'rainy day' fund, but there seemed to be consensus in the discussion that it would be short-sighted to use too much of that and then be in the same budget situation a short time from now.

Moak, Casey, and Associates generated projections for the Texas School Alliance districts which estimated what a $5 billion state cut per year will look like for HISD under three options available to the legislature. The best case was a $202 million cut, and the worst case scenario was $348 million.

Houston Federation of Teachers President Gayle Fallon is urging teachers and staff to remain calm, and wait to see how the legislation will take shape.

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