Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
San Antonio Independent School District trustees met Saturday to review the district’s budget outlook days after the state legislature agreed to provide more money to school districts around the state.
In a three-and-a-half-hour meeting, the board discussed — but did not take action — on some significant outstanding items left in the budget debate, including staff compensation and the tax rate. The next time the board plans to meet is June 17, when it also is scheduled to approve a budget.
SAISD trustees came into Saturday’s meeting facing a nearly $16 million shortfall for the 2019-20 academic year. With the passage of House Bill 3, a school finance overhaul law, SAISD likely will see about $30 million more in funding from the state, after considering the cost other new bills would impose on the district, including Senate Bill 12 which increases SAISD’s contribution to the teacher retirement system.
“[We have] net revenues of about $32 million,” Superintendent Pedro Martinez said. “Now we can cover our shortfall and then still have $16 million for both compensation and investment in programs.”
One of the provisions of HB3 required districts to put 30 percent of the new money toward compensation increases for teachers, nurses, librarians, and counselors. Teachers with five or more years of experience would be prioritized in these increases, according to the law.
Trustees were presented with three possible compensation options for various kinds of employees. All three options meet the letter of the law, Martinez said.
The first option would increase the minimum hourly pay rate from $13.25 an hour to $14 an hour. Additionally, it would adjust the pay scale for teachers, nurses, librarians, and counselors with one to five years of experience by 3 percent, and 3.5 percent for those with more than five years experience. Campus support positions, including instructional coaches, would receive the same bumps in salary.
All other full-time permanent employees would get a midpoint pay increase of 3 percent. The total cost of the plan would be $14.3 million.
The second option would boost the entry hourly wage to $15, fulfilling a goal of the district. It also would award teachers, nurses, librarians, and counselors with less than five years experience a 2.5 percent raise. Individuals with more than five years of experience would see an increase of 3.5 percent. Campus support positions, including instructional coaches, would receive the same percentage increases. All other full-time employees would get a 2 percent raise. This plan would cost the district $15.9 million.
The final option, which received support from trustees Patti Radle and Debra Guerrero, would lift the minimum entry hourly wage to $15 an hour, increase salaries for teachers, nurses, librarians, and counselors with less than 5 years experience by 3 percent, and provide a 3.5 percent increase for those with more than 5 years experience. Again, campus support positions, including instructional coaches, would receive the same raises.
All other full-time permanent employees would get a raise of 3 percent. This plan is the most expensive at $17.1 million.
“Being able to honestly meet that $15 an hour commitment, I want to create another goal for the next three years to go even higher,” Guerrero said. “Let’s do $20 [an hour].”
All three options would give permanent full-time eligible employees with 15 years of experience with SAISD a one-time bonus of $500 paid in January 2020.
No other trustees beyond Radle and Guerrero stated which option they supported. Trustee Steve Lecholop expressed concern with overspending on the new money SAISD received from the state.
For example, if trustees chose the third option, which costs $17.1 million, they would create a new budget gap by exceeding the new state revenue that helped cover the first $16 million deficit.
“If we are going to [use the third option] as a district, what I would need to see is an estimate, some kind of formal thing that says we can gain efficiency, can gain $1 million of efficiency from these places over the [next] year,” Lecholop said.
Superintendent Martinez said he would provide a list of potential cost savings at the June 17 budget meeting.
“[If trustees choose the third option] and we say we are going to go back and find these efficiencies, if there are actually $1.2 million in efficiencies that can be found, why would we not go ahead and find them anyway so we could use that $1.2 million?” asked Shelley Potter, the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel president following the meeting.
At a previous budget meeting in May, district staff proposed a few other areas where SAISD could create new forms of revenue, including a potential settlement from a lawsuit and historic tax credit for work done at Jefferson High School. However, neither of these options are absolute certainties.
Trustees also discussed another provision of the recently passed school finance bill: tax rate compression. A property tax rate assessed by a school district is made of two components – a maintenance and operations (M&O) rate that provides funds toward general operations of the district, and an interest and sinking (I&S) rate that funds debt service.
SAISD’s current property tax rate is $1.5626 per $100 of property value, which includes $1.17 from M&O and $0.3926 from I&S. HB3 would decrease SAISD’s M&O rate from $1.17 to $1.06 in 2020. The district planned to increase the I&S rate for debt service on projects from the 2016 SAISD bond.
SAISD’s plan, which was intended to lessen the burden on taxpayers, was to increase the rate by 3 cents this year and 4 cents next year, for an overall hike of 7 cents.
With the change to state policy and an expected decrease of 11 cents in the M&O rate, trustees discussed increasing the I&S rate by the full 7 cents this year. Taxpayers would still see a decrease of 4 cents but no increase next year.
Trustees will pick up the tax change discussion at the next board meeting. Several trustees had questions about new programmatic spending and how the tax rate would be advertised in advance of the meeting without a trustee vote on the tax rate.
Potter expressed concern about not having another meeting prior to June 17 to lay out more budget specifics before an ultimate vote is taken.
“I am at a little bit of a loss as to why it is so rushed,” Potter said. “Obviously they had to wait for the state, but there are three big areas that are under the board’s purview: hiring and firing the superintendent, the budget, and policy. This is one of their major, major responsibilities and I would hope they would look at having some additional meetings between now and the 17th.”
Board president Radle directed fellow trustees to send any further budget questions to district staff. Radle said trustees should receive a response in about a week to accommodate for longer discussions that might emerge from some of the exchanges.
Potter suggested those questions and answers should be done in a public forum to provide greater transparency.