in Houston, Texas
HISD talks layoffs, some trustees see other ways to reduce budget
Tuesday, Apr 10, 2012, 03:58PM CST
By Mike Cronin
teacher's desk

Faculty members and other employees of the Houston Independent School District are bracing for a second-consecutive year of layoffs that administrators said would include teachers of “core” subjects such as English and mathematics.

Several HISD board members expressed concerns about the impending layoffs and the way district officials have proceeded with their plan to eliminate positions during a workshop meeting on Monday afternoon.

“Mr. Superintendent,” Trustee Larry Marshall said to Terry Grier just before the meeting’s close, “we need to implement some pain reduction” – not just a workforce reduction – while considering options to address a projected $34.7 million budget deficit for the next school year.

HISD officials said 51 special-education teachers will lose their jobs due to declining enrollment - the mismatch in money and personnel versus students stretches back at least to 2010. They said specific numbers in other areas would be discussed on Thursday during a closed-session board meeting. And district officials said more exact numbers would be released next month.

More than 700 HISD employees lost their jobs last year due to budget cuts, but district officials ultimately hired back hundreds of them. The 700 employees laid off amounts to less than 3 percent of the district’s workforce, which approaches 27,000 employees.

“We’ve got to look at a combination of things,” Marshall said in an interview with Texas Watchdog after the meeting.

Those include using money from HISD’s “rainy-day” fund, a pool of money public agencies often maintain for emergency projects, and general-fund balance, which Marshall described as “pretty high.” The general fund is the day-to-day operating account for the district.

Trustee Juliet Stipeche said she supports dipping into the rainy-day fund. “This proposed (layoff plan) is demoralizing and unfair, and I do not support it.”

Closing all district schools rated by the state as academically “unacceptable” also would save money, Marshall said. The Texas Education Agency categorizes state K-12 schools using student scores on standardized tests.

HISD’s general fund balance is about $200 million, and its rainy-day fund is about $80 million, board President Mike Lunceford said. HISD and other districts in the state have been reluctant to dip into those reserves. The amount of money districts keep on hand factors into bond ratings -- a bad rating means borrowing money costs more -- and financial integrity ratings by the state.

Marshall also supports raising HISD property taxes, which are the lowest of all 21 school districts in Harris County. The tax rate is $1.1567 per $100 of taxable value.

That district administrators are considering laying off core teachers surprised Trustee Rhonda Skillern-Jones.

In an interview after the meeting, Skillern-Jones told Texas Watchdog that she asked HISD staff members last month what types of teachers could be laid off. District officials told her only special-ed teachers, she said.

“What I heard today was not what I heard at a workshop meeting last month,” Skillern-Jones said.

She added that the apparent conflict between planning to lay off HISD employees while simultaneously continuing to hire more was confusing.

Trustee Manuel Rodriguez suggested that HISD officials provide the same "roadmap” released on Monday, which outlines departments and programs where people might lose their jobs, to principals earlier in the school year, in October.

“That way everyone knows where potential cuts might come from and people can start planning earlier,” Rodriguez said. Distributing that blueprint in April rather than in the fall is too late, he said.

***
Contact Mike Cronin at mike@texaswatchdog.org or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelccronin or @texaswatchdog.

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Photo 'Teacher's desk and iPad' by flickr user PaulSh, used via a Creative Commons license.

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