The new normal: Education cuts mean rapid rise in unemployment, NISD superintendent warns

Northside ISD Superintendent John Folks said he and other educators were shocked to hear Senate Education Chair Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, speaking of impending public-ed budget cuts, when he said: “Recognize and be aware that this is the new normal.” The comment was made at an education hearing last week as legislators looked for ways to provide “flexibility” to districts about to fall under the budget ax.

“She used that term, ‘The new normal,’ and all of us in the room were like, ‘Are you kidding us?’” said Folks, a past president of the Texas Association of School Administrators. “It almost makes many of us angry that they would sit at the dais and say to us superintendents, ‘You’re just going to have to cut, so we’re going look for ways to give you flexibility to make those cuts.’”

Folks was among a group of school administrators, teachers, and parents that converged on Austin last week, trying to put education front and center in the state’s budget debate. According to early budget drafts, state funding for education could be cut as much as $10 billion over the next two years in order to help balance a $15-$27 billion hole.

At last week’s Senate Education Committee meeting, superintendents asked for more flexibility to help absorb the cuts without having to fire large numbers of teachers and support staff. District officials say they would have to implement furloughs for teachers, administrators, and other staff, as well as increase class sizes — a move that will put them in conflict with Texas education reforms passed in the 1980s that capped classroom size at 22 students per teacher in kindergarten and the first four grades of elementary school.

Folks was obviously taxed by the responses from those on the Senate Education Committee. “What was so frustrating to us superintendents was the fact that at no time did anyone say, ‘We want to help you reduce the amount of cuts that have to be made.’’ Folks said. “All the discussion was what could we do to help make these cuts, to help increase class size, reduce teacher salaries, have furloughs and such.”

Last week, Northside along with over half of the other public school districts in the state signed a resolution urging lawmakers to “make education a priority.” Given the direction the Lege is headed with education cuts, Folks predicts that he will have to further cut numerous academic support staff, including language and instruction coaches. “Those are services our kids just won’t be getting,” he said.

And timing is a critical issue: though legislators are unlikely to come up with a final budget before the end of the session, school districts need to know their budgets sooner than that. As it stands, districts have to let certain employees know at least 45 days before the end of the year whether their contracts will be renewed.

Folks blames some of the budget woes on poor planning at the state level. A 2006 maneuver in which officials lowered property taxes in exchange for creating a new business margins tax — something that didn’t even come close to making up for the lost revenue — left the state with a “structural deficit” that was covered by federal stimulus dollars last budget session, he said. “My point is, don’t take this shortfall, that you created, and balance the budget on the backs of school kids and Medicaid patients and the mentally ill.”

Folks estimated current proposals will cut $97 million a year from his district alone for the next two years. In addition, he estimates that districts across Bexar County would lose roughly $300 million each year. “That would be 8,000 or 9,000 people out on the streets without jobs,” he said. “You think that’s not going to affect the economy? What’s going to happen if you put that many people out of work?” •

SA schools and the funding crisis

SAISD has estimated it could take a $30- to $50-million hit based on current budget projections. Bracing for the cuts, the district is holding a community meeting to identify potential cost-cutting measures. 6pm Wed, Feb 9, Alamo Convocation Center, 110 Tuleta St, (210) 554-2230,

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