Billions of dollars in budget cuts imposed over the last two years. More students to serve in growing districts. Fewer teachers to teach. Less support staff to assist. Funding formulas that favor wealthier districts and punish poorer districts. And then there is the coming session of the Texas Legislature in January and the prospect of further cuts, and what some predict will be a new drive by conservatives to fund school voucher programs.
The job of school superintendent is not an enviable one these days.
During a luncheon program organized by the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and staged yesterday, four local superintendents focused on how their districts have been managing – and will continue to manage – increased student-to-teacher ratios and implementing accountability tests, despite severe budget cuts imposed by the Texas Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Rick Perry
The effectiveness of these kinds of standardized tests, like the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) test and End of Course assessments, have been debated for years. While North East ISD Superintendent Brain Gottardy says his district "feels good about the raw data" coming out of STAAR, "they (state legislators) haven't come out with new accountability standards."
Those standards won't be made public until January or later.
San Antonio ISD Interim Superintendent Sylvester Perez, said the state's focus needs to change, to give economically disadvantaged students – 98 per cent of SAISD students – a level playing field with their middle and upper-class peers.
"If you deal with all students, regardless of their background, that are economically disadvantaged," Perez said, "Then that tide will float all boats."
Last year's $5.3 billion cut in state education funding for the biennium left most area districts struggling to cope with increased student-to-teacher ratios. In the Northside ISD, those cuts translated to about $61.4 million in cuts and 973 fewer staff and teacher positions. Such losses were echoed across the panel in varying degrees. Perez said SAISD cut $28 million and eliminated 388 positions.
"A lot of those folks are in support roles for kids that need extra attention," such as counseling and remedial tutoring positions, Northside ISD Superintendent Brian Woods said. "Cutting positions like that is tragic ... and directly impacts student learning." His district has been forced to cut $70 million from its two-year budget.
Disadvantaged students, in particular, depend on remedial tutors, after-school programs and support staff -- services and personnel that are the first to go when budgets are cut.
Moderator Eileen Pace asked the superintendents to explain how they measure success or failure.
Attrition rates – comparing the number of freshmen to the number of seniors four years later – are commonly used in media and statistical reports, Woods said, "but that's not an accurate way to describe the students" who are between starting and finishing high school. Completion rates are a much more effective way to measure those students who take longer to graduate or move to other districts, Woods said.
He also said the coming legislative session is taking place in an improved economic environment, making him confident there should be "substantial funds" available from the Texas State General Revenue Fund surplus and the Rainy Day Fund.
"There is substantial public interest to go back and restore those cuts (made last year)," Woods said after the panel discussion.
In the short-term, Woods hopes the public's desire to see education spending restored will be reflected at the polls on Nov. 6. "In the long-term, we've got to hold legislators accountable," he said.
"Can we open the (school) doors everyday? The answer is yes," said Southwest ISD Superintendent Lloyd Verstuyft, "but the quality of education is suffering."
Gottardy agreed: "Even though we've lost $70 million, we're continuing great activities," he said.
The cuts do affect the quality of education delivered by the districts, which may open the door to charter schools to provide more choices.
"We offer a significant amount of school choice now," Wood said, citing that 10 percent of students in North Side attend school outside of that district boundary.
For the external charters that are coming into the area: "I say bring 'em on," Perez said, "We don’t select and we don’t sort, we educate them all.”
But the well-versed student exposed to a broad array of education experiences, including many extracurricular activities, is now seeing those choices disappear one by one with each cut of the budget.
Iris Dimmick is managing editor of the Rivard Report.