By Natalie Allen and Lauren Tsai
NEISD superintendent Dr. Richard Middleton recently announced the potential of significant changes within the district’s budget. According to current projections, it appears that Texas schools may suffer reductions in staff, salaries, course options, and school days. However, the proposals are still subject to evaluation.
“We don’t know for sure. The executive staff goes through all the numbers to find out what can be cut and make the least of an impact on what we do here at school. The biggest problem is keeping as many teachers as possible for the kids. 87% of our budget is people,” Principal John Mehlbrech said.
Mehlbrech explained that this battle between the schools and state legislators has been continuing for years but schools continue to receive unsatisfactory negotiations. Despite the fluctuating state of the economy, schools receive predetermined budgets that are not flexible.
“There is a baseline that is set three years before that states how much it will cost to educate each student. Well, property value goes up. We collect more money through taxes, which you would think would be great. What the state does is it takes away the extra money. You got expenses that go up. You have growth in your district, meaning we have to hire new teachers. You have gas prices going up. The costs of keeping the buildings running [rise]. The baseline never changes,” Mehlbrech said.
The real dilemma is centered upon the Texas legislators who have experienced difficulties in managing the state’s finances.
“Now the state, which would normally give us money to help out, figured out that they are 27 billion dollars in debt. They cannot even afford to pay what they owe us. They are saying that they cannot pay us $86 million now and we will have to figure it out,” Mehlbrech said.
When it comes to balancing a budget that has a shortfall between $15-27 billion, major cuts are expected to make up for the enormous deficit.
“There’s a hiring freeze, a salary freeze, the stipend incentive program has been eliminated, and now it’s a matter of how much more we can do. There’s specialists that we have to help us with our teaching, our curriculum, our TEKS. That support system will probably go away. The teachers that resign or retire now will be replaced by those specialists. That will probably be the next move. After that, it’s all up in the air,” Mehlbrech said.
NEISD has already adopted cost-efficient policies but despite its efforts, more action is needed.
“Dr. Middleton is a very smart man; he had the foresight to see what was coming. That’s why we’re no longer on AB schedule. The first year we cut maintenance stuff, then last year was the teachers at high school. If you don’t have the AB schedule, you don’t have as many teachers and you cut more money that way,” Mehlbrech said. “Now that we’ve done that, what’s our next step? No one is safe. I can’t guarantee a job for anyone at this point. I’m hoping that they leave us alone.”
Some school districts have already taken measures in anticipation of the 2011-2012 school year.
“One district in the area has told the first year teachers that were hired this year that they don’t have a job next year. Middleton doesn’t want to do that. He wants to make sure that we keep our brightest teachers here,” Mehlbrech said. “There are some school districts looking at 4 day weeks. They increase the number of hours of instruction during those 4 days. They start earlier and end later. Sometimes you can ask for waivers and it goes through a bureaucratic process where you can ask permission to divert from the rule and see how it goes. I haven’t seen the outcome of that yet. It’s ways of saving money.”
Other alternatives are being considered by the state. Although students will continue to attend a 180 day school year, as mandated by Texas law, teachers might see a decrease in their work days.
“The other option that the state is looking at is furlough days. Right now the teachers have a 187 day contract; they’re getting paid for 187 days. If we furlough and have 180 days, you save 7 days per teacher. Well, 7 days of salary can add up to a lot of money,” Mehlbrech said. “Then again, it’s taking away our ability to do staff development, to get our classrooms ready, to work on our lesson planning, and getting ready for the year. That would hurt us. The furlough would also involve administrators.”
Some changes will take place directly in the classroom; class sizes are expected to increase as school staff numbers are reduced.
“In the elementary level, the state law requires 22-1 for class size. They’re looking at maybe increasing that to maybe 24-25 which would mean you don’t have to have as many teachers. The budget we have, 87% goes to people who run the schools. The only way you’re going to significantly cut the budget is through those people,” Mehlbrech said.
The salary cuts and reduced contract will have a profound effect on teacher’s lives.
“If you take all of the hours we work and then the stipend payment and do the math, it really levels out to about a dollar an hour. It’s just that it could affect someone from $500 to $7,000 a month. That’s a large amount and we live for our paychecks,” coach Nicole Blakemen said.
Without extra incentives, some teachers may lose their momentum.
“I don’t see how anybody is going to function if they aren’t getting paid as much. You’re not going to practice as long or prepare as much. Teachers often pay out of pocket to help out in class, and now if you barely have the money to make ends meet, the people who will suffer are the kids and us. We are going to get some really bad educators because all the better educators will all be out getting different jobs,” Blakemen said.
To ensure that teachers remain dedicated, school boards are considering a bonus for teachers who have a high rate of students passing their class. Instead of listing a school’s overall success rate, teachers will be held more accountable for their students’ academic performance.
“If you have all AP kids they are all going to pass. It’s not fair. Give me an AP class and I’ll get them all to pass,” coach Samantha Vaio said. “Accountability that is held on our students is not what it used to be. When I was in high school, if you didn’t do your homework you got a zero and there was no making it up. Now, we have an opportunity to let them make up homework. We have to. They know how to work the system now.”
Other cuts might include eliminating freshman aid, a decrease in funds for new science labs, and reduced arts education. Though the district is more stable financially than others, the prospect of eliminating extracurricular and fine arts/athletic programs is very real.
“We are better prepared than many other districts. The greatest fear of all is losing certain elective classes. Dr. Middleton gave a great speech. He doesn’t want to rip the heart and soul out of this district and eliminate what we have created. The last thing he wants to do is cut programs. Now, we are looking at everything else but that is not a guarantee. Of course, you have to look at the fine arts. You have to look at the programs that are not under the accountability system when it comes to the state testing. They consider that something that you can take outside of school,” Mehlbrech said.
For the fine arts directors, who receive compensation for extra hours spent during competition and concert season, the stipend cuts also place them in a precarious situation.
“Yes, [I’m worried] because it’s a significant cut in pay, and to not get much notice about it either is kind of scary. Right now, we don’t know what’s going to happen and I don’t know when we’ll know whether our budget will be cut significantly and our stipends taken away,” Orchestra director Karen George said. “If they’re cutting our income and that’s part of what we do, then how do we make up for that? Somehow we have to make up for it. Once you have a specific income, it’s hard to adjust that to a lower and substantial amount lower, income. How do I earn that extra money that I lost from school? It’s something you really can’t take lightly.”
George is considering other sources of income.
“I might have to start teaching private lessons. I was finishing up my private lessons where I wasn’t going to teach privately anymore so that I would have more time, because I do spend a lot of time at Johnson. I get here at 7 am and, like many of the other directors here, am very committed. I don’t leave until 6 pm. I’m here for 11 hours almost every day. That’s not even part of my stipend. But if they cut my stipend, then I might have to figure out other means of income, and that might mean that I can’t do all the stuff that I do for Johnson orchestra now. You have to make it up somehow.”
George is determined to continue leading a strong music program.
“I certainly don’t want to see our programs diminished because we had that cut, but at the same time it’s about survival too.”
Still, she is uncertain about what changes will have to be made.
“That’s the really hard question. I’m not sure. I hope that it’s not to that point but at the same time you have to question what are they expecting of us now.”
Despite her concerns, she remains optimistic and believes that budget cuts will not stunt the orchestra’s student growth. Last year, all fine arts programs saw a decrease in numbers.
“Certainly when we changed from the block period to the 8 period day, everyone in the fine arts program lost students. All of us lost probably about 10% of our numbers because we’re young and we only have one feeder school.”
However, as more students adjust to the new bell schedule, the numbers are starting to increase again.
“Our numbers are not that way for this year. For next year, it is projected that we will have a higher number of students, not by a lot, but a little bit higher. I would hope that this would not affect the number of enrollment for students in the future. I don’t know where they’re going to cut but, as I understand it, it will [more so] affect us personally. [The budget cut] doesn’t affect [students] necessarily.”
Unlike other courses which, if they do not generate enough student interest, could be eliminated, the orchestra program seems to be stable.
“If the state cuts orchestra out, then yes, I’m in trouble but as it stands right now the only thing I need to worry about is having a decrease in numbers but I don’t have that right now,” she said.
She admits that the current projections come as a shock.
“We’re just kind of one of the last people to be hit, and it comes as a surprise because this whole time you’re thinking, ‘I’m a teacher and I work for the state. So my job is not in jeopardy.’ But realization: yes, it is. And that’s scary and it’s sad to think that education is where we’re starting to cut down. This is your child’s future and now you’re saying that the teachers aren’t worthy enough to continue to teach your child. It becomes this really scary cycle and it’s going to take time to get back. I think eventually we will, but it’s going to take time.”
Despite inevitable challenges, Mehlbrech is determined for Johnson to maintain its high standard of education.
“There’s a lot higher rigor [to prepare for the EOCs]. We’re trying to be prepared for that but with less money and resources. I’m hoping Johnson is going to be okay but I can’t guarantee that either because I’m not in the position to make that decision. We will do the best we possibly can with it just to maker sure that everyone on this campus is well prepared for college or the next level. At least the doors will be open,” Melbrech said.
The issue is something the districts are willing to fight for. Like other school officials, Mehlbrech is anticipating a lawsuit.
“The lawsuit will base itself on the financial structure of how school districts are being paid through that state. There are some districts talking about a lawsuit to change the structure again but that probably won’t happen for a little while because it costs money to do that too. More than likely we would be [involved in a lawsuit],” Mehlbrech said. “Dr. Middleton is a very smart man and he waits to see what it looks like. He’s in constant conversation with state legislatures, with other superintendents around the state. That decision of a lawsuit or not will come through him and the Board of Trustees to see whether or not it’s worth it.”