DALLAS (AP) – In one fast-growing Texas district, two new schools will sit empty this year because there’s no money for teachers. Another district’s cuts mean students who want to take the bus will have to pay $185 a semester for the ride. In yet another district, the bands won’t travel to away football games.
As students return to school next week, the impact of cuts made by the Texas Legislature to education funding will be felt in ways big and small. Some students will notice larger classes, others will miss out on field trips. Districts have eliminated teaching jobs and administrative positions.
“When you suffer a blow like what’s been dealt to public education in Texas, there’s no way to completely shield parents and students from the hit,” said Texas Association of School Administrators spokeswoman Jenny LaCoste-Caputo.
In the face of a $27 billion state budget shortfall, the Legislature cut $4 billion over the next two years in funding for school districts — the first decrease in per-student spending in Texas since World War II. Lawmakers also cut $1.3 billion in grants for programs that included expanding pre-kindergarten classes to a full day.
This school year, districts will see a cut of about 6 percent across-the-board. Next school year, there will be a $2 billion reduction that cuts funding for some schools more than others.
Next year may be even harsher for many schools because the cuts were softened a bit by a one-time payout of $830 million in public education funds this spring. School finance expert Lynn Moak of Moak, Casey & Associates said those federal funds helped offset this year’s cuts by about a third.
For the Houston school district, the largest in the state with about 204,000 students, the cuts came to almost $80 million for this year. Spokesman Jason Spencer said the district eliminated 400 teaching positions out of 13,000 and cut about 270 jobs in central administration after eliminating 400 of those positions last year.
“You cannot do that and not have some tangible effects,” Spencer said.
Lamar High School Principal James McSwain said his school has eliminated about 29 positions — from clerical to teaching staff. Class sizes for core subjects such as math and English will increase by about 10 students, to about 38 per class. In computer and art, class sizes will surpass 40 students. Because of dwindling requests for German, they’ll no longer offer it, but will still teach Spanish, Chinese, Italian, French and Russian.
“I honestly believe we’re going to be able to hold onto our quality, but we can’t do any more,” said McSwain, who said staff development sessions will address how to teach larger classes.
In Keller, about 20 miles north of Fort Worth, students paying to ride the bus will save the district $2 million a year. A district official says they had warned residents of a “pay-to-ride” system if voters in June didn’t approve an increase in property taxes to help make up for some of the state cuts to the 32,000-student district.
“We’ve had over 3,000 phone calls. Many were upset and justifiably so,” said Mark Youngs, Keller’s deputy superintendent of finance. “Folks don’t pay attention until it touches their front door.”
Launi Walker, who would have to pay nearly $1,000 per school year to bus her three school-aged children, said she’s angry that the tax increase was voted down.
“The winners here are the people who don’t have children because they voted it down and they don’t have a tax hike,” said Walker, who has decided to put two of her children on the bus and drive the other one.
Walker says she feels like the “students in Texas aren’t getting enough money spent on them.”
“It’s the responsibility of our community to educate our children,” said Walker, who plans to pay the fees with money she’s been using to pay extra on the mortgage.
Keller has also cut from the arts budget and athletics budgets, including gymnastics and “C” athletic teams, Youngs said. The district also had job cuts and will see a modest increase in high school class sizes from 26 to 28.
Some districts, including Fort Worth and the small West Texas town of Alpine, have dipped into their reserves in order to keep teachers. Darrell Dodds, Alpine’s director of finance and support services, said that letting teachers go wasn’t possible in his district of about 1,100 students.
“We’re pretty much at the bare minimum,” Dodds said. “We weren’t able to reduce that because we are where we need to be for our students.”
In Leander, about 27 miles north of Austin, one of the most visible signs of the cuts will be two new schools — a middle school and an elementary — sitting vacant.
“We’ve got these big beautiful buildings ready to open but we can’t afford the teachers to put in them,” said district spokeswoman Veronica V. Sopher, who adds that the buildings were built with bonds approved by voters.
They’ve also cut teaching and central office jobs. She said the district, which expects about 1,500 more students this year for a total enrollment of around 33,000, may have to ask for a waiver to increase class sizes above the 22 mandated by the state for kindergarten through fourth grade.
The suburban Dallas district of Carrollton-Farmers Branch has been making cuts over the last three years, closing an elementary school, increasing class sizes, reducing staff and trimming its pre-kindergarten program from full-day to half-day.
District spokeswoman Angela Shelley says that the cut for this upcoming school year that most people are talking about is one that saves $50,000 in transportation costs: The district’s bands will no longer travel to away football games.
In addition to job cuts made in the district of the Dallas suburb of Plano, they’re eliminating field trips to the symphony, a historic farmstead and a railway museum, district spokeswoman Lesley Range-Stanton said.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)