Defunding the future: HISD faces broad spending cuts while parents question school closures
By Alex Wukman
Outside Love Elementary everything is prosaic; the sound of a Mariachi trumpet drifts east across Shepherd and down 13th Street from a used car lot dotted with US, Texas and Mexico flags. Timbergrove Little League’s White Socks practice run downs on the school baseball fields, and in the shadows cast by the booms of TV trucks a jogger stops to kick a soccer ball with a father teaching his two young sons to pass to the inside of your teammate’s feet. Inside Love Elementary things are not so pleasant.
Parents, holding signs and wearing t-shirts proudly proclaiming how much they love Love Elementary, are crammed into the school’s cafetorium to hear why HISD is considering closing the school and sending its 400 plus students to two other schools. Since HISD announced in March that Love was one of the schools being looked at for closure rumors have been circulating and one of the more persistent is that the district wants to close the school and sell the land to a developer who turn it into townhomes. And when one parent, who doesn’t provide her name, tells the HISD representative this he assures her that the district has no interest in selling the land.
“We simply are here to talk about consolidation because of declining enrollment,” says the HISD representative. The parent, a fiery 5’2” Latina bubbling over with righteous anger, has no patience for bearucratic reasoning. “You’re lying,” she says, “there are plenty of students coming to this school.” As the meeting continues the anger and frustration from the crowd never ebbs. Community members and parents provide a litany of reasons why Love should be spared the ax. They cite the school’s improving test scores, the incredibly active PTO, the informal surveys that show the amount of students from the Heights entering kindergarten is expected to triple within in the next four years; but all of it seems to fall on deaf ears.
Many of the parents dispute the demographic data that HISD’s highly paid consulting firm Magellan has provided the district; data that predicts Love will have a decreasing enrollment. Faculty and staff, their HISD identification badges obscured by “I heart Love” t-shirts, raise their voices as they take the mic and demand that the district make sacrifices in other areas. “We don’t need cuts to schools that are working. The sacrifices need to come from unproven experimental programs,” says one teacher.
For months HISD has been plagued with concerns about the Apollo 20 program, which requires students to come to start the school year a week earlier and stay an hour later every day, provides math tutoring for sixth and ninth graders at the participating schools and gives students who are considered below grade level an extra math or reading class every day. Apollo 20 has been the pet project of HISD’s new Superintendent Terry Grier.
Grier, who is in the second year of a three year contract, has repeatedly promised HISD trustees and parents that the $20 million price tag for Apollo 20 will not be paid out of the district’s general fund, and most of the money has come from Federal grants and private donations. However, in June 2010 word leaked out that when HISD voted to renogiate a contract with Community Education Partners, an organization that provides academic and behavior improvement programs for middle and high school students, the district decided to lower the payment to CEP by $4.5 million and transfer some of that money to Apollo 20.
The district saw it as simply transferring funds from one outside vendor to another. However, HISD volunteers and parents think that the money spent, and raised, by the district on programs like Apollo 20 could have been used to help offset the district’s $171 million budget shortfall. Even the fact that most of the money for Apollo 20 is coming from organizations like the Fondren Foundation, who recently agreed to provide $750,000 to HISD over three years to support the program, doesn’t sit well with some parents.
“Instead of saying ‘Here’s this baby of mine, here’s what we need for it’ why can’t they say ‘Here’s what we need district wide,’” said Bronwyn Lauder, president of Love Elementary’s PTO. The millions that HISD has to cut from spending has helped push education spending to the forefront of most state and local media. And with good reason, HISD has announced that they are eliminating over 1,000 jobs and are looking at closing 17 schools to try and balance the budget.
Among the 1,000 jobs lost are 277 positions at HISD’s administration building, which district representatives like to use to show that the pain is being felt all around. However, parents don’t think that the district is being completely honest about the front office cuts. “I’m waiting on an open records request to see how many of those 277 are unstaffed or unfunded positions,” said Lauder. Even if the district is eliminating front office positions without actually eliminating personnel it’s only a short term solution.
“It’s not at all hard to look in the crystal ball and see that we’ll be in the same place in 2013,” said Houston political blogger Charles Kuffner. Kuffner, who writes extensively on the budget shortfalls of governmental agencies throughout Texas, explained that HISD’s budget problem is just a localized symptom of the budget crisis being felt throughout the state. The problem starts with the proposed cuts to State education spending, which in the Texas House of Representatives is $8 billion and in the Texas Senate $4 billion. Then in reverse Reagnomics fashion the cuts trickle down to school districts across the state.
As Kuffner explains, “all along HISD was planning a budget based on cuts to public education.” It’s just the size of the cuts that worries the district. HISD Trustee Harvin Moore explained that the House budget amounts to spending cuts of nearly $900 per student, or $20,000 less per classroom, which is a cut too severe for even HISD. At a recent HISD board meeting Trustee Paula Harris told the assembled students, teachers and parents that the district “can’t take an $800 per student cut. We’ve already cut $275 [in per student funding] and that’s been devastating to our smaller schools.”
Like almost every district across the state HISD has been considering its options to try and find ways to minimize the amount of layoffs; one of the options that has been promoted by Governor Rick Perry has been school districts using reserve capital, or rainy day funds, to make up their budget shortfalls. However, school districts have severe reservations about going into their savings accounts.
“Unlike the state [districts] can’t easily transfer money out of the rainy day fund. This is a onetime thing and many districts are rightfully concerned that they’ll be in the same place in two years,” said Kuffner. He went on to describe the much heralded repeal of the Doggett Amendment, which prevented Texas from replacing state education dollars with federal money, as a stop gap measure. Named after Texas Democratic Congressman Lloyd Doggett the spending provision was put into place after the 2009 Texas Legislative session when lawmakers took stimulus bill money intended to supplement education spending and swapped it for state education dollars.
As part of the recent budget showdown in Washington, a showdown that narrowly averted the first government closure since 1996, the Doggett Amendment was repealed; this allowed the Texas Legislature to put $830 million of federal money into the state’s education budget. The repeal of the Doggett Amendment didn’t sit well with some HISD board members. “It’s good for Texas to get federal money, but the Legislature has gone out of their way to make an elective choice not to fund education and that’s frustrating for those of us in education,” said Moore.
As HISD has continued trying to figure out which teachers to layoff and which schools to close, they have ignored one of the few options the district has for raising money, mostly because the people on the school board consider it political suicide. HISD Trustee Carol Galloway raised the issue by saying that “nobody on the board wants to talk about” raising taxes. Kuffner framed the reluctance of the district’s elected leadership to consider a tax increase as an abject lesson in realpolitik.
“Even if this is the Legislature’s and Governor’s fault, the trustees still have to run for re-election,” said Kuffner. The lack of political will to raise taxes for education funding is nothing new; it’s common knowledge in education circles that the straight line of the state’s budget crisis can be drawn right through the recession and falling sales tax revenue to tax cuts that went into effect in 2006. The ’06 tax cuts were part of Governor Perry and the Legislature’s plan to “lessen the burden on homeowners;” so lawmakers passed legislation that sounds good on paper and helps win elections. They voted to reduce property taxes by $14 billion every two years, what they didn’t tell voters was that the reduction would mean that the State would only be raising $9 billion.
As the Fort Worth Star-Telegram stated in February 2010 “In other words, the Legislature committed $5 billion every two years to holding down property taxes instead of spending that money on education, public safety or other priorities.” The ’06 budget cuts have become famous across the state for creating what Kuffner terms a “structural deficit.” To put it another way, the 2006 tax cuts mean that the state is going to be perpetually facing budget shortfalls every two years and drastic spending cuts every budget by school districts, law enforcement and other governmental entities will be the new normal.
And the fact that this could be the new normal is something that worries Lauder and the other parents standing beneath the jungle mural in Love Elementary’s cafetorium. In a voice painted with the faded hues of frustration and exhaustion Lauder describes how schools serve as something more than a place where children go for eight hours a day. She lays out how schools serve as a third space, somewhere beside home and work, and because of their non-religious and apolitical nature serve as an inclusive meeting place for people from backgrounds that may not feel welcomed at a holy site.
“Schools are the perfect gathering place to get together and make decisions about impacting the world around us,” said Lauder. It just remains to be seen whether or not the State Legislature values the roles schools play in their communities; some on the HISD board aren’t so sure that those elected to serve in Austin care about education. “At least in the [Texas] House of Representatives the voice of parents and teachers has not been heard,” said HISD trustee Harvin Moore.