HISD superintendent tackles financial and academic issues
Hutto ISD hired Superintendent Doug Killian in August 2010, and in his three years with HISD, Killian has faced challenges including cuts in state funding and the implementation of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR tests. In the 2013–14 school year, Killian plans to continue focusing on increasing the district’s rainy day fund and its students’ standardized test scores.
What financial issues are the district facing?
When [I] first came into the district, we had just passed the third deficit budget in a row, and the [population] growth had started slowing down. It was starting to impact the district’s ability to run programs. Some of our [enrollment] projections weren’t keeping up, so some of the construction had gotten a little ahead of itself. We had excess space, and [the district] didn’t make it quite as efficient as it could have been. I had already been listening and hearing all about the state [public school funding] challenges. When I came into the district and saw us depleting the [general] fund balance … and [knowing] the state was about to start cutting funding, I immediately knew we had to do something.
What steps did the district take?
The first thing we started doing in the 2010–11 school year [was] eliminating positions by attrition. During the course of the year, as people left, we evaluated to see if we really needed the position. We really tightened our belts that year, too, and at the end of the year, we ended up not being in a deficit budget. After the state cuts were announced, [we had to cut] 76 or 77 positions to make our budget balanced for the 2010–11 school year, and we [also] closed Veterans’ Hill [Elementary School] and moved fifth grade to middle school. It was some creative work that got us to the point where we could close one campus, but it saved us $1 million annually.
Is the district looking at reopening Veterans’ Hill immediately?
It’s pretty important—we want to get it back open. In looking at our growth this year so far, the bulk of it has been at the elementary grade level. That’s one reason [all elementary students] won’t fit—that grade span has grown tremendously over the past few years. We will have to look at what options we have. Because of our growth at the elementary level, we are concerned about capacity. If we move fifth grade back down to elementary, we will be over capacity at all elementary campuses, and our middle schools will be under capacity. That isn’t an efficient use of our facilities, so we need to go back and look at what we can do.
How does the 2013–14 budget reflect the district’s finances?
We continue to make sure we have a surplus. We’re trying to get our rainy day fund to the Texas Education Agency’s recommended amount, which is three months worth of operating [expenses]. We’re above 60 days now, and by the end of the year we’ll be close to 90.
How has the surplus affected jobs in the district?
When the [tax ratification election] was passed [in 2012], part of the message that we were asking was, ‘Do you want the art and music teachers reinstated?’ The bulk of what we’ve added has been instructional or instructional support.
What else has the district been able to add to its offerings?
This year, just because of the growth projections, we ended up having to add a fifth-grade teacher at Hutto Middle School and a kindergarten teacher at Hutto Elementary School. We’ve been moving toward [science, technology, engineering and mathematics curriculum], and we’ve got some scholarships that were put into place through a foundation last year. We also started robotics [programs] at the middle schools. We’ve been trying to get approval for a [Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps] unit for the last several years, and we finally stepped up and made that happen this year with the Air Force JROTC unit.
Looking at taxes, what will it take for the district’s tax rate to decrease?
[One thing is increased] commercial development so we can lower the debt service tax rate. That’s the [part of the tax rate] that’s really high, at 50 cents, which is the maximum. Without commercial development, the burden falls on the residential homes, and you have to tax at a high rate in order to get the money to pay those payments. That’s why we’re very supportive of any commercial development.
How has transitioning to STAAR testing affected the district?
Every time we make a transition to a different test, it seems like it becomes a hot-button issue. The [state] raised the standard, and in this case we didn’t even get to see the test or what it was even going to look like before [students took it], and that’s been different than in years past. Two years ago, when we saw this coming, we put in a program that … was training our teachers in good, quality instruction methodology and how you deliver instruction. I think that’s paid quite a bit of dividends.
We added a literacy specialist to specifically work with our teachers in prekindergarten, kindergarten and first grade areas to boost our reading scores. We put math interventionists in at every campus to help our struggling kids.