Eanes ISD focuses on 2015-16 budget woes

Eanes ISD’s board of trustees stated concerns over the district’s 2015-16 budget in a March 11 memorandum to EISD Superintendent Tom Leonard.

Westlake-area residents and former trustees have since mobilized to sway the district to adopt a different approach to its finances and maintain its academic reputation.

Out of the district’s 409 Class of 2014 students, 69 students, or roughly 17 percent, held National Merit commendations; all of EISD’s nine schools were awarded the highest accountability rating of “Met Standard” by the Texas Education Agency in 2014; and EISD’s sole high school was ranked among the top high schools in the United States by Newsweek, the Washington Post and U.S. News.

Budget reduction options 

As a result of prior state legislative sessions, EISD has found itself in a “systemic funding shortage,” Assistant Superintendent Lester Wolff said.

Because EISD is a Chapter 41, otherwise known as “Robin Hood” plan school district—a wealthier district that must share its funds with less income-rich districts as required by state law—Wolff said approximately 54 percent of all of its local funding is sent to the state for recapture. He said this number is expected to rise to 63 percent in the next few years.

“This will mean important decisions will be necessary as we prepare our budget for future years,” Wolff said. “In Eanes, approximately 85 percent of our operating budget is directly tied to personnel. Most of our reduction options will be in this area.”

He said attrition can account for the decrease in district staffers for the 2015-16 school year.

Proposed plans for the upcoming school term include between $1.055 million and $1.36 million in budget savings. These savings are the result of not filling teaching positions and other vacancies; obtaining waivers that would allow for a greater number of students in a classroom; and eliminating some instructional support positions, coaching staff and administrative support personnel.

However, Wolff admits there may be a price to pay for these changes.

“As our average class size increases, staff will be stretched in the amount of time [open] to interact with students,” he said.

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Wolff cites concerns over the ability of teachers to individualize student instruction if support positions are eliminated.

“Fewer students will receive needed support, negatively impacting their achievement,” he said.

Some positions have already been eliminated through resignations and retirement, he said.

“Please know that once the final [staffing] decisions are adopted, the direction of this district will be significantly affected,” Wolff said. “It is our belief that employee morale may be compromised as will the programmatic experiences of our students.”

Help from the Texas Legislature

The School Finance Bill, passed by the Texas House of Representatives on April 7, may help EISD overcome some of its financial struggles, Leonard said.

The bill­’s two-year proposition increases the base allotment for school districts funding Texas’ Chapter 41 plan, including EISD—allowing more money to stay in the district.

With the proposed increase, EISD may receive compensation for its transportation costs, amounting to a “significant jump in revenue,” Leonard said at a board meeting held the same day. However, he said the district will still continue with its deficit reduction plan.

“Our current game plan is a gradual spenddown,” said Rob Hargett, president of the EISD board of trustees.

Also problematic for EISD is that the district, along with Lake Travis ISD and others, receives funding—Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction, or ASATR—that will end in 2018.

“We are going to plan for the worst, and we’re going to advocate in whatever way we can to get whatever we can from the state Legislature,” Leonard said.

Eanes ISD focuses on 2015-16 budget woesOpposition to budget cuts 

Al Cowan, former EISD board of trustees president, said the district has been operating at an annual deficit for years. Cowan, along with Clint Sayers,  who also served as board president, led the charge against the $52.5 million EISD bond proposal on the May ballot.

The men are part of Citizens for Academic Excellence in Eanes, a group opposed to the proposed budget cuts.

Cowan said the district, instead of focusing on the elimination of teaching positions, should put a moratorium on transfer students and cut administrative positions instead.

Raising revenue

At its April 7 meeting, EISD’s board of trustees outlined revenue-raising measures previously discussed during their Oct. 7 study session, including sponsoring driver’s education courses at the high school, increasing summer school tuition, adding transportation charges and reviewing fees.

The Eanes Education Foundation’s Feb. 21 annual gala raised $425,000, enough to fund 8.5 teacher positions for the following school year, EEF spokeswoman Desiree Figer said.

“We don’t want to give our parents fee fatigue,” said Hargett, who suggested the board of trustees revisit fees that have not increased in five years.

In June the board will review the fees other districts charge and the legal limits of raising revenue, Leonard said.