AISD board discussing budget changes, more efficient use of facilities

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) —  At Austin Independent School District’s February work session meeting on Monday, board members are scheduled to discuss budget adjustments that would save the district money as well as plans to more efficiently use the district’s campus facilities. 

Efficient use of facilities

The Board will be talking about how to create more efficient use of district facilities, including boundary changes, consolidations, and program offerings. It would also include maintaining and repairing older buildings.  

“Tonight is looking at the process for determining which schools will be impacted by any innovations,” said Michelle Cavazos, Chief Office for school leadership at AISD. “So our hope tonight is that [the trustees] get to have that high-level overview what the process looks like and that they get to understand what might be and what might not be part of the criteria.”

AISD explained this is just the start of discussions, the board won’t have their first action item to start moving this process forward until February 25. The district added that it likely won’t be until June that they will be able to produce a list of schools that will experience closures or impacts of redrawn boundary lines. 

This comes after the Budget Stabilization Task Force presented a final report to the board at a January work session recommending closing or consolidating schools, redrawing boundaries and phasing out diversity choice busing with a series of conditions. 

“Huge portions of the district budget are linked to our aging, crumbling and underutilized facilities, with an unsustainable amount of money going toward the maintenance, repairs and overhead for buildings that have far outlived their useful life,” the Budget Stabilization Task Force reported to the Board on January 7. “This has resulted in hundreds of millions of bond dollars being spent over decades to put temporary band-aid fixes on top of band-aid fixes, instead of being put toward the enhancement of student learning.

Michelle Cavazos explained that AISD does not yet have a list of schools that might be closed. 

“Because we are going to look at different scenarios and different criteria to determine to evaluate every single school in our district to evaluate what they have what they don’t have,” Cavazos said. “So we can look possibly regionally at what are the needs there so our community has access to as many programs as possible as close to their homes as possible.”

While the district calls this focusing on efficiency at campus facilities, Ken Zarifis, president of Education Austin, the union for AISD employees,  feels the language the district is using dances around the topic. 

“Planning for efficient use of campus facilities?” Zarifis said reading the AISD work session agenda. “That’s closures.”

“Closures are clearly the most important issue here because there’s money figure attached to it, all the other efficiencies are long term and this is immediate,” Zarifis said. “What I believe it is is that the district is cloaking closures around this efficiency conversation.” 

He said education Austin’s position is that no AISD schools should be closed, especially not in the middle of the Texas legislative session when it’s unclear which impacts might trickle down to Austin. 

“If you are looking at closures, don’t tell me you have a list months down the road, you know what you’re looking at now let’s talk about that now instead of the middle of the summer when communication will be next to impossible,” he said. “Let’s talk about the ugly truth and move forward.”

Zarifis noted that Education Austin is especially opposed to closing any schools on the east side of Austin.  

Budget adjustments: changes to supplies, maternity leave, academic specialists 

The board also discussed a long list of budget adjustments to help the district save money.

AISD’s Chief of Business and Operations Nicole Conley presented to the board, explaining that the district faces declining enrollment, increasing recapture, and decreasing fund balance.  In the 2017-2018 Fiscal year AISD’s budget had a $17 million dollar deficit, that number is estimated at $20 million for the 2018-2019 school year. For the 2019-2020 school year, the district’s budget deficit is expected to more than double to around $65 million. 

Conley explained that while AISD expects to get more money with school finance reform, the district still had to look at how to alter its budget in ways that protect classrooms and services as much as possible. 

A draft document for the district show that these include realigning and reducing academic and Social Emotional Learning specialists (estimated savings of $2.51 million), anticipated staffing reductions due to enrollment declines (estimated savings of $3.41 million), changing the schedules at LASA and LBJ to be consistent with all other high schools (estimated savings of $720,000), across-the-board cut 5 percent reduction to school supply allocations (estimated savings of $560,000), a revised actuarial for employee health plan (estimated savings of $8.5 million), and eliminating partial pay for extended leave (this includes maternity leave) (estimated savings of $200,000.)

An AISD employee who wanted to remain anonymous contacted KXAN expressing concern about the potential cut to partial pay. She explained that she is expecting her first child this year and has begun looking into maternity leave options. 

“When inquiring about the leave options, I was informed early on that certain elements of the leave policy, specifically the partial pay that is provided to mothers for their first six weeks out, was subject to change due to budget cuts,” she said. 

She explained that while the partial pay rate is a cut back from her normal salary, it’s still a reassurance to know a portion of her salary is available. 

“All of this is rather troublesome when living on a tight budget as an educator in a city with rising living costs,” she said.

“As you can imagine, I was caught off guard when discovering that the discussion around this topic was not any talks of an improvement to the maternity leave policy, but what seems like a step back,” she added. “I would really like to see this policy kept in place and if any changes occurred, would like to see movement in a child-centered direction.”

Education Austin also said they are opposed to taking away the partial pay leave. 

The board will decide on a budget in June. Monday’s discussion aims to make sure that board members have informed decisions long before then. 

A spokesperson for AISD explained that all of these budget changes are for the next AISD fiscal year, so they would not go into effect until July 2019. 

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