HISD: Deep cuts painful but necessary
Houston school trustees on Thursday slashed per-student funding, targeted four small schools for possible closure and made other cuts to eliminate about one-third of the district's estimated $171 million budget shortfall.
The decisions, described by trustees as painful, but necessary because of expected sharp reductions in state funding, set the stage for continuing debate about whether the Houston Independent School District must raise taxes to close a $64.7 million budget gap that will remain if trustees later approve reductions in the district's central office.
"There are so many unknowns at this stage of the ball game," trustee Larry Marshall said. "It's very hard to distinguish up from down."
The largest cut made Thursday — a $58 million decision - reduces per-student funding about 8 percent to roughly $3,260 per student for the 2011-12 academic year. Principals will have to decide how to make up for the $275-per-student cut. Options include firing teachers and cutting programs.
"These are sad times for every member of Team HISD. We know that good teachers, administrators, bus drivers, police officers, maintenance workers, and support staffers will lose their jobs through no fault of their own," Superintendent Terry Grier wrote in an e-mail to staff members Thursday night.
HISD made the cuts to brace itself for the huge hit that education is expected to take statewide. Texas has a shortfall estimated at $15 billion to $27 billion, and legislators have been reluctant to consider increasing taxes or tapping the so-called rainy day fund.
HISD expects to lose about $160 million in state money and anticipates increased costs of about $10 million.
While the board isn't expected to vote on a final budget until this summer, district officials must meet an April 18 deadline for notifying contract employees that their jobs have been eliminated. Cuts made after that deadline can result in costly appeal hearings, officials said.
"None of this is to extract blood from teachers," board member Harvin Moore said. "I and the other board members have talked about all the options."
Depending on what happens on the state level, HISD can consider further cuts, dip into savings or raise taxes, said chief financial officer Melinda Garrett. Trustees vowed to return money to the classroom if the state forecast improves.
Also approved Thursday were a $2.4 million reduction to the district's small-school subsidy, a $4.6 million cut to funding at a handful of other campuses, and a $2.3 million cut to the teacher incentive pay program.
Board members also agreed to move forward with the possible closures and consolidations of Grimes, Love, McDade and Rhoads elementary schools. If the campuses are closed, the district would save about $1.7 million.
Another $45 million in savings - including eliminating 260 central office jobs - has been identified and will be discussed March 24.
Last month, Grier proposed raising property taxes by 4 cents and lowering a special homestead exemption to 15 percent - options that combined would increase revenue by about $63.2 million. The district's current tax rate is $1.1567 per $100 of assessed value, and HISD officials have the option of raising its rate by 7.33 cents without voter approval.
Hard political choices
Several teachers urged the board to increase property taxes even though it may cost them politically. Each one-cent increase is equivalent to 192 teaching jobs, Houston Federation of Teachers President Gayle Fallon said.
In other action, the board decided to offer free SAT testing to all juniors during the school day April 13, to use June 3 as an inclement weather make-up day, and to close the Ninth Grade College Prep Academy and merge students back into the Sam Houston Center for Math, Science and Technology.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Texas' budget shortfall estimate as $15 billion to $27 million.
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