On a warm Saturday last March before a rally of more than 10,000 people on the south steps of the Texas Capitol, John Kuhn captured whatever populist desperation there was in the air that day.
For a moment the superintendent of tiny Perrin-Whitt Consolidated Independent School District with fewer than 500 students near Wichita Falls, was the storm for public education foreseen by the Moak, Casey & Associates study that many in the crowd had for months pored over.
Billions in state funding cuts. Twelve thousand teachers and staff laid off, a figure reported as fact as recently as December by National Public Radio. Tens of thousands of other school professionals out of work. Schools closed. Students grossly shortchanged.
“Millionaire senators: cut my pay to minimum wage, and I will still come into the classroom and teach the kids who need me,” the San Antonio Express-News reported Kuhn thundering to an approving crowd. “Bail out the bankers, and bankrupt the teachers. We will still teach.”
“Chicken Little was right,” Jacqueline Shannon, former president of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, wrote three weeks later in a San Angelo Times editorial decrying the proposed education cuts. “The sky is falling.”
Texas Watchdog set out to fact check Chicken Little. Without the aid of statewide analysis – an annual report done by the Texas Education Agency won’t be released until April – Watchdog requested data from the 10 largest school districts serving nearly a fifth of the almost 5 million students in public schools in Texas.
As in the fable, the sky did not fall in those districts. Confirming what the Texas Education Agency says it has heard anecdotally across the state, relatively few teachers were actually laid off.
Instead, these districts shed thousands of teaching and administrator positions through the usual attrition of retirement or leaving the district. That yielded a 5 percent drop in the number of teachers overall at the nine districts that responded to Texas Watchdog’s public records request. The El Paso Independent School District failed to provide any responsive information.
(Please see our chart of teacher gains and losses below and the raw numbers here.)
Bonuses offered to up resignations
The philosophy in the Arlington Independent School District, which lost 220 teaching positions by attrition, was echoed again and again in the decisions made in the other largest districts.
“Every consideration was made with how this might impact directly on the classroom,” spokeswoman Amy Casas says. “We would have wanted no cuts or fewer cuts. They were tough cuts, but we made them thinking about the people who most impact the classroom.”
Alone among the top 10, the Fort Worth Independent School District showed an increase of 63 teaching positions from the past school year to this one, although through several rounds of hiring and layoffs the district currently counts an overall loss of 37 teachers, district spokesman Clint Bond says.
The Houston Independent School District laid off 724 teachers for the start of the school year, but rehired 300 of them, district spokesman Jason Spencer says. More than 400 more teaching positions were left vacant.
In some cases districts goosed their attrition and avoided layoffs by offering a resignation bonus. When the Dallas Independent School District offered 15 percent of a teacher’s salary up to $10,000, 707 employees took the offer, district spokesman Jon Dahlander says.
The total payout for the bonuses was $6.4 million, but it represented a $45 million savings to a district contending with an overall budget cut for the current school year of $63 million, Dahlander says.
“We were able to handle all of it through attrition, but we lost a lot of excellent teachers and some outstanding principals,” Dahlander says.
Fort Worth, which offered smaller retirement stipends last year, is making the same offer Dallas did in the hope that 600 more teachers and another 100 staff people will retire or leave the district at the end of this school year, Bond says.
The Dallas and Fort Worth gambits of spending money to save money suggest that if the sky isn’t falling school officials are pretty sure it is being trussed up with used parachute silks, some old bedsheets and a few butterfly nets.
Having gotten by on attrition, Dallas needs to find another $37 million in savings. To get it the district is planning in the coming school year to close 11 schools and merge them with 10 or 11 others.
While the savings and efficiency equations work, parents, students, teachers and administrators are deeply unhappy, Dahlander says.
“It has been painful, but we knew that going in,” Dahlander says. “Up to this point everything we’ve done has been to try to cut away at the margins. By closing these schools and realizing those efficiencies we think and hope our staffing can be handled by attrition. Our one goal is to protect the classroom.”
Schools cuts affect classrooms, union rep says
What attrition forces on a district is difficult for the public to see. In several of the big districts, including Arlington, teachers gave up planning periods to be available to teach additional classes.
By doing the simple math the losses in the 10 largest districts has changed the ratio of students to teachers by no more than two children.
This, of course, isn’t how teachers and students are distributed throughout a district. Teachers and the needs of students are specialized with so many categories that aren’t easily divisible.
State law requires a ratio of no more than 22 students for each teacher in kindergarten through fourth grade. In 2010-11, 168 Texas school districts asked for and received a waiver from the Texas Education Agency to allow for more students in 2,238 classrooms, agency spokeswoman Suzanne Marchman says.
In this school year, 294 districts requested waivers for 8,362 classrooms, Marchman says. Almost a year ago, the Agency itself lost at least 110 positions to state agency-wide budget cuts.
Texas State Teachers Association spokesman Clay Robison considers the waivers a primary indicator of how districts are hurting, although the association keeps no data of its own on teaching and administrative fluctuations.
Robison has no difficulty parceling out blame to conservatives in the Legislature and Gov. Rick Perry.
“It also proves the lie in the contention that you can cut $5.4 billion and say education in Texas is fully, adequately and equitably funded,” Robison says.”You can’t say you are not affecting classrooms. You simply cannot do that.”
Under what may appear to him a falling sky, Robison fires his salvos across a political gap without a bridge. Michael Quinn Sullivan, founder of the conservative advocacy group, Empower Texans, says the real lie is the implied threat to education every time cuts to the public education budget are considered.
“The quickest way to direct attention from the wasteful spending is to threaten the livelihood of our teachers,” Sullivan says. “There is no defensible reason to fire teachers in tough budget times, given the explosive growth of budgets in items unrelated, or tangential, to classroom education.”
For Sullivan the primary question isn’t how much money is spent, but how it is spent. Teacher staffing in Texas has kept pace with enrollment increases, Sullivan says. Overall spending has lapped enrollment by several times over the past several years, he says. (See chart below and here.)
“We can never spend efficiently until we have a sound grasp of what we are trying to achieve with our spending,” Sullivan says.
Sullivan finds it rich that San Antonio ISD, which cut its teacher positions through attrition this year while agreeing to add $3 million to an already $35 million commitment to renovate Alamo Stadium and its Convocation Center.
At the same time, the district added its name to the list of hundreds contending in four lawsuits that the state’s funding of public education was, among many other things, insufficient, negligent and unconstitutional.
The suits were filed by the Equity Center of Austin, the Texas Schools Coalition, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Thompson and Horton law firm in Houston.
The language used in the lawsuits recreates a Chicken Little tableau. “The Texas school finance system,” one suit says, “has reached a crisis stage again.”
Administrators in the 10 biggest school districts in Texas are going on with budgeting for 2012-13 as if those lawsuits had never been filed.
After gutting out $77.4 million in budget cuts this year, Houston ISD needs to cut another $44 million more, spokesman Jason Spencer says. The district believes it can count on $18 million in reserves, he says.
Teacher attrition will undoubtedly be part of the formula, but Spencer says he isn’t sure how the board for the district might make up the rest.
Residents in the district are beneficiaries of an optional homestead tax exemption and the lowest property tax rate of any school district in Harris County, Spencer says. Spencer says he isn’t even trying to guess what might happen if the board calls for raising taxes.
“We’ve gone along cutting people out of departments like our central administration,” he says. “I’m feeling like this time it is going to be cutting entire departments and whatever that department was providing.
“Even if all of those lawsuits were successful, they won’t even touch us until quite a way down the road.”
Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We’re also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.
Illustration from the story “Chicken Little” in the New Barnes Reader, published 1916, posted for re-use on Wikimedia Commons.
Article originally published on TexasWatchdog.org and written by Mark Lisheron. Used via Creative Commons License.