Instead of a raise, Leander ISD narrowly approves a 2% one-time payment with the option to rescind

In one of the most debated topics in months, Leander ISD trustees voted 4-3 to narrowly approve a compensation package for Leander ISD employees in the 2020-21 budget.

The package includes a 2% lump-sum payment—in lieu of a permanent raise—and no increase in health care premiums for all employees, as well as increased stipends for special education teachers.

While the freeze in health care premiums and stipend increase will take effect July 1, the 2% payment could be revoked if the district does not meet moderate enrollment growth projections—or other conditions change to warrant its revocation by trustees in the fall.

Trustees Grace Barber-Jordan, Elexis Grimes and Aaron Johnson voted against the package, citing a large budget deficit for next year and signs that future state and federal funding will probably decrease.

The district’s finance department predicts the 2020-21 budget, in its current form, would create a $28 million to $42 million deficit.

“I would like to support this pay increase,” Barber-Jordan said. “I can’t in good conscience do that if the administration remains committed to our proposed budget, which ranged from $28 million to $42 million in deficit for next year.”

Citing similar concerns, Johnson suggested whittling the budget deficit for 2020-21 to $10 million or less.

Superintendent Bruce Gearing said his staff will create an additional budget reflecting cuts that would meet Johnson’s deficit reduction request. Before the vote, Gearing told trustees that approving the 2% payments would give his staff less flexibility in reducing the proposed budget deficit.

Any 2020-21 budget deficit would be covered by LISD’s general fund, which is approximately $150 million, according to LISD documents. Due to a shorter budget year (LISD just switched from an Oct. 1 fiscal year start to a July 1 start) and other savings, the district plans to add $18 million to the fund balance for the current budget year, increasing the total reserve fund balance to $168.6 million.

President Trish Bode, Gloria Gonzales-Dholakia, Jim Mackay and Pam Waggoner voted for the compensation package.

Waggoner advocated strongly for giving all LISD employees the 2% one-time payment instead of nothing at all—and warned that not keeping up with nearby ISDs may hurt LISD’s ability to recruit and retain talented teachers.

“I’m willing to cut some other things, I’m just not willing to cut the teachers’ pay,” Waggoner said, prompting Gearing to remind her that the 2% payment would go to all LISD employees, not just teachers.

According to LISD documents, nearly all ISDs in Central Texas have approve 2% or greater raises for 2020-21. Austin ISD is proposing a 1.5% raise or a pay freeze.

If trustees do not approve the 2% payment, “we are going to be the only district in Central Texas to do that,” Waggoner said. “We’re not going to help the morale of our teachers at all. .... This is not the time to not pay our teachers.”

Trustees had three compensation choices: the 2% one-time payment, which will be equivalent to 2% of each employee’s annual salary; a 2% pay raise; and a 1% pay raise and 1% lump-sum payment.

District staff recommended the 2% one-time payment because it would better position the district if faced with future budget shortfalls.

"This option recognizes the value of current staff and could benefit the district if future funding decreases for 2021-22," LISD documents said.

Although he expressed concerns before the vote, Mackay voted to approve the compensation package.

“The simple fact is, we don’t know what the next 12 months will look like,” he said. “I think it’s obscene the amount of money teachers are paid to begin with, but that’s not something we can address during a pandemic” and after warnings from state officials that future funding may decrease.

Barber-Jordan said the not knowing what the future holds should prompt LISD to take a more conservative tack.

“I’m not worried so much about the coming year, but two, three, four years down the road,” she said, adding that the teachers she has spoken to understand the potential fiscal hardships LISD may be facing. “They’re glad to have a job. ... They know what’s happening in the world.”

Waggoner countered that a crisis such as the coronavirus pandemic is exactly why LISD has reserve funding.

“I think this is the time to use it,” she said.

Trustees also voted unanimously to schedule a June 18 public hearing and vote for the proposed 2020-21 property tax rate, which is $1.4162, a decrease from the current rate of $1.4375.

After the cordial but spirited compensation debate and vote, Bode and Gearing credited the trustees for their candid conversation.

The district must adopt a budget by June 30 and its tax rate by Sept. 30.

“That was a really hard discussion, and it’s not going to get easier,” Bode said.