Monday, March 7, 2011

Talking points for lawmakers, the media and your community

It is crucial for superintendents, school board members, teachers, parents and all Texans who care about the future of the state to make sure their voices are heard in Austin – and timing is critical.

The current proposed budgets in the House and Senate call for draconian cuts to Texas public schools, cuts so deep that there’s no way to avoid a major impact on the way we deliver education. We need lawmakers to make education a priority, to minimize the impact on education and give school districts the flexibility to weather cuts.

Please contact your legislators as soon as possible. Here are some key points to make with them, emphasizing that school superintendents and local school boards need as many tools as possible to mitigate budget cuts:

•      Vote YES to using a portion of the state’s Rainy Day Fund for public education. Leadership and the Texas Legislature have already taken raising taxes off the table this session. Discussions about severe cuts to public education are ongoing and the proposed House budget would cut funding for public education by $9.8 billion and the proposed Senate budget would cut $9.3 billion.   Such massive cuts would result in a loss of funding of approximately $1,000 per student. Without raising new taxes, the only way the Texas Legislature could reduce the proposed cuts for public education is to rely on funding from the state's Rainy Day Fund. The Rainy Day Fund belongs to the state and it exists for emergencies. Public schools are in a state of emergency.

•      Support legislation to replace the 22:1 class size limit with a district wide average of 22:1 and provide that no class may exceed 25 students. With massive budget cuts looming and 85 percent of district’s budgets going to salaries, the 22:1 mandate in grades K-4 would mean districts would have no choice but to create much larger classes in higher grades. Flexibility on this mandate, while still maintaining a cap of no more than 25 students in those classes, would allow district leaders to spread the burden more equitably while still ensuring a manageable class size limit in those early grades.

•    Help districts avoid layoffs. Current state law prohibits school districts from decreasing the salary of full-time teachers, nurses, counselors, librarians, and speech pathologists below the 2010-11 salary level. Repealing this provision would allow districts to lower salaries of existing employees, reducing personnel costs to minimize or avoid layoffs.

•    Support legislation to allow school districts to temporarily furlough employees. Under current law, an educator employed under a 10-month contract must provide 187 days of services.  School districts are required to provide 180 days of instruction for students. Allowing districts the ability to temporarily furlough employees for up to seven non-instructional days and reduce salaries accordingly would provide districts financial flexibility while keeping teachers employed and without reducing the number of days students attend school.

•    Support legislation to change the deadline of notification regarding renewal of term contracts. Current law requires districts to provide notice of intent to non-renew a teacher’s expiring contract 45-days prior to the last day of instruction. In order to meet the 45-day notification deadline, districts must send these notices out in mid-April. The 45-day nonrenewal notice deadline should be changed for several reasons: It is bad for students, as it occurs while teachers are administering the state tests; it is bad for teachers, because student test scores are not available in time to inform the district’s personnel decisions; and it makes efficient budgeting and planning impossible, because staffing plans must be developed before districts knows how much state funding they will receive. School districts need a permanent change to the notice deadline, making it at the end of the instructional year rather than mid-April to give district leaders the flexibility in the future to budget efficiently and, more importantly, to make sure students aren’t negatively impacted.

Talking points for media and/or the community: Explaining the budget shortfall

Explaining Texas’ school finance system and how we arrived at the budget crisis the state finds itself in today isn’t easy. Your community needs to understand that the state’s shortfall is due to a structural budget deficit, not only the economy, and certainly not because of money mismanagement at the district level. Here are some key points to make that case:

•    Because of changes the Legislature made to the school finance system in 2006, our district has been operating with essentially the same amount of per-pupil revenue for the past five years. Meanwhile, annual costs - including a state-mandated teacher pay raise - have continued to go up. Standards have continued to increase as well, which means districts are not only being asked to do more with less, but do it better.

•    The next two years bring even more challenges and districts need adequate funding to meet those challenges. (Here talk about your district's growing or declining enrollment and explain how the scenario affects your district's bottom line, such as hiring more personnel, building facilities for growing districts, the challenges of less funding for declining enrollment and decisions that have to be made of closing schools for districts with declining enrollment. Also talk about growing population of economically disadvantaged, LEP and special education students and how these groups require more personalized instruction.)

•    During the 2012-13 school year, we will begin administering end-of-course exams, which will be more rigorous than the exit-level TAKS. Despite the budget deficit, lawmakers have so far been adamant that there should be no delay in implementing the new system, even though they acknowledge the financial strain it will place on districts. (Be specific about what types of programs will need to be implemented to prepare students for EOC's and other costs associated with the new testing program.)

•    Because we have been in financial crisis since the Legislature froze funding levels in 2006, our district has already cut costs wherever possible. (Give specific examples of cost-cutting measures.)

•    During this past school year, we spent $__ per student, of which $__ went directly to instruction. Only __ percent of the district's budget was spent on district administration and __ percent was spent on campus administration. If our state funding is cut at the level that lawmakers are now talking about, we anticipate having to cut the following programs and services: (be as specific as you can.)

•    Failing to invest in today's schoolchildren is dangerous and ultimately unfair. Texas children need and deserve a quality education. If funding is cut for our schools, our students and the state's economy will pay the price.

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