Everything we know about Austin ISD’s plan to reduce its $30 million budget deficit

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Facing a 6,000-student decline in enrollment since the 2013-14 school year and tax obligations to the state in the sum of $672 million for the current fiscal year, Austin ISD board of trustees received a draft proposal Dec. 10 of potential suggestions to cut the district’s $30 million spending deficit.

The draft proposal includes 91 possible budget reductions over the next three school years. Proposed cuts could include consolidating up to 12 under-enrolled campuses, eliminating 150-200 staff positions across AISD and shoring up operational inefficiencies, according to district documents.

Forty-three proposed cuts, including two of the campus consolidations, could total $30,061,418 for the 2019-20 school year if approved by the board this spring.

Superintendent Paul Cruz said the proposed plan reshapes the way the district supplies some of its resources. He said the list of cuts will likely change from now through final budget approval in June, but the current list of 2019-20 options is what is being proposed at the moment.

“It’s a multiyear strategy that we started last year, are implementing again this year and in [future]years as well,” Cruz said. “While [the district]put some options on the table, we will be having more dialogue and community conversations about what strategies we can take next year to realign budgets and resources.”

Without making reductions, district staff anticipates running at a deficit of more than $30 million in future years. If so, the deficit could deplete the district’s fund reserve by 2021-22, said Nicole Conley Johnson, AISD chief of business and operations.

“You never want to be in a position where you have less in the bank than it takes to pay off monthly costs for the district,” she said. “I think our reserve levels [would]go down to $45 million [in 2021-22], and our monthly payouts for all expenses are about $60 million.”

Cruz said at the Dec. 10 board workshop that trustees likely would not make any decisions on cuts until March 2019.

School consolidation

The draft proposal includes $12 million in savings over the next three school years by consolidating up to 12 yet-to-be determined AISD schools. Two school consolidations proposed for 2019-20 would save the district $2 million, according to district documents.

While specific schools have not been selected, Cruz said that the schools under consideration come from a pool of more than 12. Those selected would likely be schools currently with “targeted utilization plans,” or specific plans developed to increase enrollment at the campus.

Johnson said when considering consolidating a campus, AISD analyzes transportation impacts, academic and facility conditions and enrollment trends in different areas of the district.

“Ultimately the goal is to put kids in higher academic performing environments,” she said Dec. 12. “We’re trying to solve a lot of issues beyond just the finances.”

At the Dec. 10 meeting, Trustee Ann Teich said that when pursuing school consolidations and closings, trustees must look across the entire district, not just one geographic area. She said at least two schools in North Austin’s District 3 and District 5 in Central Austin are under enrolled, and may be better options than some of the under enrolled schools east of I-35.

“It’s critical that we prepare our communities thoroughly so they understand why it’s important to do some of these consolidations,” she said. “There’s an academic advantage and a monetary advantage I think we need to explain so they support and understand [the moves]. We have kids who are [currently]served at a school that is deficient and it’s important that we give them the best.”

Cruz said there is currently not a timeline for deciding which schools could be consolidated.

Other proposed cuts

School consolidation is just one of 43 budget measures proposed for the 2019-20 school year.

More than $13.3 million in staffing-related savings were proposed. Options included increasing the student-to-teacher ration for secondary schools from 29 to 30 students per teacher. The district will also look at reducing staff at under-enrolled campuses and boundary changes to assure students have access to certain programs.

AISD Chief Human Capital Officer Fernando Medina said it is challenging to know how many current members of the staff, if any, will be let go due to the cuts. Anywhere from 150-200 positions could be eliminated through cuts, from teachers to administration and clerical staff, he said.

However, Medina said the district could naturally see 600 teacher vacancies in a given year from retirements and teachers leaving the district. For non-teaching staff, that number could be between 400-500.

“This is about shifting our staff and staffing levels at campuses,” he said. “We experience vacancies each year, so we know we have an opportunity to begin looking at those potential vacancies that will occur this spring to begin shifting our staff into those positions.”

Another $8.5 million in savings could come from projected health-related costs that may go unused. Medina said the district has made a concerted effort to educate staff about changing behaviors when it comes to better using some befits. Partnerships with other districts also contribute to those savings, he said.

The approximately $6.2 million in remaining savings include operating efficiencies like scheduling adjustments, consolidation of technologies, changes to district investment practices and evaluating current contracted services.

Causes of the deficit

Johnson said the district’s deficit is due to increased recapture payments to the state of Texas and a decrease in district enrollment.

Recapture payments require school districts with high property values in Texas to pay the state in order to help fund districts with lower property values. For the 2018-19 school year , Johnson said the state will keep more than half of the tax revenue AISD collects from local property owners, totaling an estimated $672.9 million.

If school financing laws stay the same, by the 2020-21 school year recapture payments are estimated to cost AISD $901.3 million.

“We’ve been cutting [from the budget]every year,” Johnson said. “In 2011 we cut $60 million [due to state financing obligations]out of the budget. This is an unfortunate condition that many school districts face because of constraints in school funding.”

In terms of enrollment, Johnson said within six years the district will have lost about $45 million in enrollment-based revenues due to a decrease of roughly 6,000 students. Enrollment, which was about 85,000 in the 2013-14 school year, is projected to be fewer than 78,000 by 2020-21.

“School finance laws are based on a per-student amount, and as we loss students we lose that capacity,” she said. “From what we can see, especially this year, we had a more substantial loss than the previous year. We don’t expect these trends to taper down any time soon.”

AISD Chief of Staff Jacob Reach said Dec. 10 that while Travis County has a higher population than many of its neighboring counties, it has the lowest household size in the area. The percent of the county’s population under the age of 18 is 22.7 percent, also the lowest compared to its neighbors.

While middle and high school enrollment in the district has remained somewhat stable, decreases in students have been felt more in the early elementary school grades, he said.

Affordability in Austin is making it difficult for families with school-aged children to move into the district. Johnson said as the city of Austin makes progress on affordable housing in the district through the city’s 2018 bond, the district’s enrollment might begin to stabilize.

Looking beyond 2019-20

Johnson said that she is more confident than in recent years that the 2019 legislative session will offer districts, like AISD, with more financial relief than they have historically received.

“There are big [school finance reform]proposals out there, but it probably won’t be until April when we could [understand]what these things may mean for the district,” she said. “We’re hoping it will be favorable for all school district.”

Reach said the district may also pursue grant opportunities through the Texas Education Agency. The district could be eligible to seek funding for transportation costs and to help support schools that may be struggling academically, he said.

The draft proposal already outlines $10.2 million in potential budget savings in the 2020-21 school year. An additional $7.3 million in proposals is included for 2021-22, according to the document.

District staff also offered trustees a look at over $55 million in other cuts that could be considered in the further, but have not been sufficiently explored.

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Nicholas Cicale
Nick was born in Long Island, New York and grew up in South Florida. He graduated from Florida State University in 2012 with a bachelor's degree in writing and a minor in music. Nick was a journalist for three years at the St. James Plaindealer in Minnesota before moving to Austin to join Community Impact Newspaper in 2016.
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