The Austin school board early Tuesday morning approved a $1.65 billion budget, which dips heavily into district reserves to cover a $47.6 million shortfall.
The 2020-21 budget sets aside $33 million in coronavirus-related expenses, including technology for remote learning, training materials and personal protective equipment.
The approval of the spending plan came hours before the Texas Education Agency announced guidance on how it will calculate school funding for districts. School funding is tied to attendance, so it’s unclear how the state will finance districts this fall as many students opt for online-only education amid the pandemic.
District leaders also don’t know how many students they may have next year. For most students, the Austin district is planning a hybrid model for reopening schools in the fall, with some virtual learning, as well as in-person schooling that involves social distancing and likely capping classroom spaces at 25% capacity.
"It’s very different from the way we (usually) run schools," said Superintendent Paul Cruz, adding that campuses could start the school year with one schedule and move to completely online if campuses need to shut down for multiple days because of the spread of the virus. "We’re going to create calendars that schools can pivot into and out of throughout this semester given the impact of COVID-19."
Cruz said the reason the district has been able to provide Chromebooks and iPads for students, as well as Wi-Fi hotspots, is by tapping the fund balance.
"The fund balance is the rainy day fund. And it’s raining," he said.
The Austin district budget includes a 2% employee pay raise and $3.6 million in bilingual and special education stipends and other compensation increases totaling $21 million. Most of the raises originally weren’t included in the preliminary financial plan.
However, trustees told administrators they wanted to reward and retain their staff, given the difficulty educators faced when the coronavirus shuttered schools, such as switching to remote learning overnight in mid-March and reaching students during the pandemic.
Education leaders across the state are expecting an economic fallout from the pandemic, including eventual drops in property values and tax collections, which is the primary local revenue source for school districts.
In Austin, the district is anticipating a 4% reduction in local tax collections, but the decrease also will lower the amount the district must pay in recapture, the money required by the state from property-wealthy districts to help subsidize districts with little property wealth. The $5.9 million will decrease the amount the district must pay the state in recapture to $606.3 million, still the highest amount required of any Texas school district.
District documents also outlined $1.9 million in savings from shuttering Brooke and Pease elementaries, two of four campuses trustees last year voted to permanently close.
The school board is scheduled to adopt the tax rate in September. Because of changes in state law, the proposed tax rate will drop for a second consecutive year to $1.1084 per $100 of assessed property value. The owner of the average taxable home value worth $430,801 will pay $4,775 in school taxes, an annual increase of $89.
Calls to strip police funding
Much of the budget discussions revolved around the district’s police department. Several dozen parents and Austin residents called on the school board during public testimony to reallocate funds from the district-run police department and to direct them toward more restorative justice practices, counseling and other support services. They also asked for the district to be more transparent, posting online how much the district earmarks for the department and its officers, as well as the officers’ use-of-force statistics.
The call to remove or lessen the presence of school resource officers comes as city police departments across the nation come under scrutiny, with growing efforts, including in Austin, to defund them and redistribute money to social services.
The Austin district public speakers, who were required to leave a one-minute voicemail rather than live comments, said the presence of officers in schools marginalizes children of color and criminalizes student misconduct rather than having administrators enforce discipline.
"I’m passionate about this because what data we do have shows SROs do not actually make our schools any safer, but instead, disproportionately disadvantage students of color, sustain the school-to-prison pipeline and devastate Black and brown communities," said Forrest Aldridge. "We are in the middle, right now in this country and this city, of removing racial injustice and punitive violence from our society in favor of restoration and rehabilitation."
Current funding for the district’s police department totals about $9.4 million. An earlier proposal included five additional police officers, but it was not included in the budget presented to the board. However, the police budget did increase to include $250,000 toward threat assessment and security. The three non-officer positions includes two mental health threat specialists and another position to connect students to social and emotional support.
The district’s in-house police department now employs 84 officers, including 43 school resource officers, with two assigned to every high school and one assigned to every middle school. The department also employs two mental health officers and about 40 other staffers, including dispatchers and emergency management and life safety systems personnel.
Two years ago, following the Parkland school shooting, the district added $1.7 million in its budget to beef up security measures, which involved adding five more police officers to the force, a mental health officer and adding more safety equipment, including security cameras.
In response to the public comments, Trustee Cindy Anderson said she thought the district’s online police page could provide more information, including the range of duties the officers oversee, such as traffic control. She also pointed out that the district spends $10.43 million on mental health, social emotional learning and restorative practices.
"We invest more in mental health, social emotional learning and restorative practices combined then we do in our law enforcement department," she said.
"Obviously we have things we need to continue to work on," Anderson said. "Our officers have a great deal of training requirements with respect to cultural proficiency, diversity training, restorative practices (and) mental health. A significant number of hours that I understand to be very different from the requirements of other law enforcement agencies."
Four social justice organizations, including Texas Appleseed, Children’s Defense Fund Texas, Disability Rights Texas and The Earl Carl Institute at Texas Southern University, recently told the district officers shouldn’t even be on campuses. The Austin Justice Coalition also has called on the district to divest from school policing in the district. That letter also was signed by Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, Intercultural Development Research Association and Educators in Solidarity.
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