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School cuts concern area administrators

By Christina Lane
Jan. 19, 2011 at 6 p.m.

There was a strong sense of fear and uncertainty Wednesday among East Texas school administrators as they began poring over details of a proposed Texas budget.

Among the proposals are cuts to arts education, pre-kindergarten programs and teacher incentive pay as legislators look for ways to balance the state's budget without raising taxes.

"Seventy-five percent of our population doesn't have a college degree," Spring Hill Superintendent Wes Jones said. "Why do we continue to try and push everyone into that hole? Give students real job training and certifications that the majority will use and be productive and spending citizens. If education is a priority, which it should be, I can think of many other areas that should be targeted before education."

Unclear cuts

Texas is facing a revenue shortfall of at least $15 billion, and Tuesday lawmakers got their first glimpse of a proposed budget that included a $5 billion cut from education below the funding base. One idea on the table is a $4 billion reduction to the Foundation School Fund that provides state money to schools based on their average daily attendance.

"We're really unclear as to what the cuts will look like because of the way Foundation School money is funded right now," said White Oak Superintendent Mike Gilbert. "The program is based on target revenue. With target revenue, some schools get more money and some get less."

White Oak gets about $4,954 per student.

"We don't know if there will be proportional cuts," Gilbert said.

Kilgore Superintendent Jody Clements estimated his district could lose as much as $2 million in funding under targets suggested in the draft budget.

"We're very concerned about this," he said. "We've done a good job in Kilgore of conserving our fund balance the last couple of years because we felt this was coming. We'll probably be able to weather the storm, but we're going to continue to try to be more efficient in what we do."

Like Kilgore, Longview ISD has been preparing for more slashing of education funding, consolidating jobs through attrition and carefully monitoring spending, district spokesman Adam Holland said.

"Like most other Texas school districts, we anticipate being forced to trim our staff," he said. "It would be irresponsible to tell you where the cuts would be, because we don't expect to have some working numbers (from the state) for months."

At about $5,005 per student, Pittsburg ISD Superintendent Judy Pollan said her district is already under-funded by the state , and any additional cuts will be detrimental.

"Cutting the Foundation School program will seriously affect our school district," Pollan said. "Last year, we received federal fiscal stabilization funds. Those funds helped us balance our budgets.

"We no longer have those funds," she said. "Pittsburg ISD cannot afford to fund any more programs locally. And we cannot raise local taxes without an election."

Slashing programs

In addition to decreasing the Foundation School Fund, lawmakers also are discussing cutting fine arts, steroid testing, teacher incentive pay and pre-kindergarten programs. Most superintendents agreed steroid testing isn't vital, but pre-kindergarten can't be eliminated.

As the state continues to make its annual student assessments more difficult, it becomes more important that education start at an early age with pre-k, said Gladewater ISD Superintendent J.P. Richardson.

Most superintendents said given the state deficit, they didn't doubt there would be cuts. However, with those cuts, they want lawmakers to find an equitable way to distribute money.

"Right now, we have an arbitrary system which needs serious study," Pine Tree Superintendent Marian Strauss said. "Legislators must work in collaboration with school leaders to find a way to support public education, which is the foundation of our democracy. We have just got to make education a priority if we expect to have a successful future."

- News-Journal staff writer Angela Ward and East Texas Community Newspapers contributed to this report.



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