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School districts in East Texas dealing with cuts

By Glenn Evans
Sept. 3, 2015 at 4 a.m.

Wayne Pierce

Local school districts weathered their share of $5.4 billion in cuts statewide by lawmakers in 2011, but they still face residual effects even as some 600 of them had their day in court Tuesday.

"Where we're still feeling the hit is going to be with personnel," Gladewater ISD Superintendent J. P. Richardson said, explaining the cuts fell on teachers who provided intervention for students in lower grades who were struggling with math or reading. "This year, we've been able to add back the reading part of it. But, again, we still don't have the math."

Gladewater is one of 443 school districts forming the biggest of six sets of plaintiffs suing the state over the 2011 school funding cuts.

In August 2014, District Judge John Dietz ruled the funding system unconstitutional in the lawsuit. The judge determined that schools don't have enough money to properly educate all students. He said funding is distributed unfairly, and districts are improperly restrained from raising the revenue they need.

Gov. Greg Abbott, then attorney general, appealed the ruling to the Texas Supreme Court.

Justices heard arguments Tuesday and aren't expected to rule until possibly next year.

Richardson estimates that the 2011 cuts translated to a $2.4 million loss in Gladewater ISD.

The district had about 380 employees.

"Now, we're down to around 310 employees," he said. "It's been hard on districts. I know it's been hard on Gladewater."

Per-student spending in Texas school districts averages $9,559, according to The Equity Center, which organized the 443 districts as the Texas Taxpayer & Student Fairness Coalition.

That's the 38th lowest per-student investment among all states.

In White Oak ISD, another member of the Equity Center's coalition, Superintendent Mike Gilbert reported that per-student spending in the coming school year is $8,500.

White Oak has handled the 2011 cuts by focusing, during the ensuing three school years, on cuts in materials, including software and curriculum support packages, Gilbert said.

"As far as actual dollar amounts of the cuts, it is hard to say," he said. "It was more of a trade: salaries for materials. We did not have any layoffs or reduction in force."

Neither White Oak, Gladewater nor Harleton — all plaintiffs in the lawsuit — have had to request waivers in the state mandate of a teacher for every 22 students in kindergarten through fourth grade.

Officials at Pine Tree ISD, which is not a plaintiff, also have not requested waivers to the ratio. The district did not report its per-student spending or the amount of cuts it faced in 2011.

The Texas Tribune reported the number of classrooms that exceed the limit grew from about 2,200 to about 8,600 in the school year after the 2011 legislative session that enacted the cuts.

"Our class-size waivers have come in the spring of the year when class sizes grew and there was less than half a semester remaining in the year," Gilbert said. "Two years ago, we were prompted to hire an additional teacher in the primary building due to increases in enrollment early in the fall."

Wayne Pierce, who directs the Equity Center, said Wednesday that the number of districts seeking a waiver from the 22:1 ratio spiked immediately after the cuts but fell in subsequent school years.

"But now, they are going back up," he said.

Pierce said local residents should care how the Texas Supreme Court eventually rules on the school funding issue because it directly affects their wallets.

"It's not just a student issue," he said. "When the state doesn't do its job, they just put it back on the taxpayers to fund it."

Pierce was in Kilgore on Wednesday updating superintendents at the Region VII Education Service Center on Tuesday's hearing in Austin.

He said the nine justices on the Texas Supreme Court gave little indication which way they might be leaning.

"They were hard to read because they were so even with questions," he said. "But, the questions indicate they do have a good insight into what the problems are."

Pierce said conventional wisdom among observers predicts a ruling from the state's highest civil court sometime after the March 1 party primaries.

Harleton ISD Superintendent Craig Coleman was among superintendents meeting with Pierce in Kilgore. He said afterward that his district has dipped into its fund balance each year since the 2011 cuts.

"It was around $900,000 for our district," Coleman said of the 2011 hit. "It was over 15 percent of our budget. ... We've had a deficit budget for the past four or five years."

Coleman did not recall his district's per-student spending level, but he did know he calculated it to $3.66 an hour a few years ago.

"So, for less than you pay a babysitter, you're getting transportation, education, extracurricular (activities)," Coleman said. "We're not trying to waste the taxpayers' money. We're really trying to educate the kids as cost-effectively and as efficiently as possible."

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