South San ISD Board Ponders Staff Cuts In Response to Projected Deficit

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South San Antonio Independent School District board (second, from left) trustee Louis Ybarra Jr., trustee Elda L. Flores, trustee Edward Mungia, president Angelina Osteguin, superintendent Abelardo Saavedra, vice president Leticia Guerra, and trustee Connie Prado.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

South San Antonio Independent School District board (second, from left) trustee Louis Ybarra Jr., trustee Elda L. Flores, trustee Edward Mungia, President Angelina Osteguin, Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra, Vice President Leticia Guerra, and trustee Connie Prado.

South San Antonio Independent School District joined the ranks of local districts that are examining staff cuts because of budget shortfalls in the coming school year. While South San's expected deficit isn't as large as the estimated gaps in San Antonio ISD, North East ISD, or Judson ISD, the $6.6 million shortfall is substantial for the district of 9,100 students with a budget of $77.8 million.

At a meeting Wednesday night, JC Zamora, the district's chief financial officer, presented several proposed reductions that could help the district close its funding gap. One of Zamora's proposals was cuts to staff that would include eight administrators in central administration, two assistant principals, five campus counselors, 19 teachers, and eight teacher aides.

Trustees said these reductions would only be necessary should a proposed tax rate increase fail.

At a March 27 meeting, the district floated the idea of a tax rate increase to area residents. The proposed 13-cent raise would impact the maintenance and operations (M&O) tax rate, currently set at $1.04 per $100 of property valuation. This rate combines with the interest and sinking (I&S) rate of 41 cents to create the overall tax rate, set at $1.45. Tax revenue from the M&O rate goes toward supporting the everyday operations of the district. Money from the I&S rate contributes to debt payments.

The tax rate increase would bring in an estimated $6.4 million in new revenue to the district. The board of trustees would first need to approve the rate increase proposal to send the matter to an election.

"We can't make any decision [on cuts] until that vote day, until election day comes," trustee Edward Mungia said.

Trustees are expected to vote to call for a tax ratification election in June, two months prior to a vote on the overall budget.

South San Antonio Independent School District Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

South San Antonio Independent School District Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra

Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra said the district identified a dollar amount per campus that must be cut to fix the deficit. He said the district asked campus administrators to identify how these cuts could be made. For example, elementary schools were asked to look at a $160,000 cut.

Saavedra said this allows campus principals to identify the needs of their specific student bodies. Not all administrators have submitted suggested cuts to the district.

The superintendent also proposed using $1 million from South San's fund balance, which is similar to a savings account, with the intention of paying that money back throughout the school year. The fund balance currently contains about $20 million. Most trustees indicated they would support pulling from the fund balance in this instance.

"This would help alleviate the pressure," Saavedra said. "You basically tell principals you don't need to cut quite as much."

Staffing costs comprise 84 percent of the district's total budget, Zamora said. Mungia asked Zamora if the district could make up the deficit without any cuts to staff.

"The remaining [16 percent] that will be left will be $11 million for non-salary expenditures," Zamora said. "[Cutting the deficit out,] that would leave us with $5 million for supplies, facilities. Utilities are about $2 million [on their own]."

District officials identified enrollment loss as the cause for South San's budget woes. In 2013-14, the district enrolled a little more than 10,000 students. Four years later, in 2017-18, South San ISD enrolled 9,101 students. Next year, district officials project the loss of an additional 500 students.

Zamora said the steady loss of students is unsurprising with nearby charter campuses, operated by IDEA Public Schools, opening new grades each school year. He projects a loss of 250 more students in 2019-20.

Trustee Elda Flores stressed the fact that state funding depends on average daily attendance, not student enrollment. This means it matters more how many students come to school on an average day, rather than how many enroll in the district.

"It is very rare that a classroom will have 100 percent attendance," Flores said. "A teacher may have 22 students in a classroom in an elementary, and you'll have 19 or 20 students show up everyday. And that's kind of typical because you have students that are absent a lot. That's the problem we are having."

Even if a tax rate increase passes, the district would still have a projected deficit of $2.7 million in 2019-20. Zamora estimates this gap in spite of a $6.1 million revenue increase because of the tax rate hike.

Board President Angela Osteguin noted that San Antonio ISD, which passed a tax rate increase in November 2016, faces a projected $31 million deficit for the 2018-19 year.

Osteguin indicated that while staff cuts are hard, it is important that the district prepare to live within its means and make some tough decisions. The board plans to continue budget discussions in the coming months.

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