ARLINGTON -- An overflow crowd urged the Arlington school board Thursday night to scale back proposed cuts in jobs and programs and instead consider dipping into reserve funds and even raising taxes.
District officials have already announced $15.3 million in cuts -- including 390 jobs -- for next school year. They are considering other cuts to help plug a potential $35 million reduction in state funding.
The Legislature is considering slashing a total of $10 billion to the state's schools.
Arlington officials have said they might lay off some of the 780 probationary teachers -- those in the first three years of service -- and close the Kooken Education Center, which provides a programs for children with disabilities and other at-risk students. The services would be moved to other schools.
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More than 200 people packed the 100-seat board room and at least 100 others watched on monitors in two side rooms and outside in the courtyard.
The audience and the more than 50 people who spoke were mostly employees -- including many of Kooken's staff -- and parents. A few students also spoke, including a youngster who asked the board not to lay off his teacher "because I like her."
Many speakers said their staffs include large numbers of probationary teachers and that laying them off would devastate their campuses.
"If you decide to vote for releasing all of our probationary teachers," said Emma Davis, principal of Ellis Elementary, "you will be slapping the face of the entire community."
Administrators said no decision has been made on how many probationary teachers would be laid off. Eliminating all their jobs would saving almost $39 million.
One speaker criticized school districts in general for giving pay raises over the past two years while private industry was bracing for the economic downturn and tightening its belt.
Larry Shaw, director of the United Educators Association, urged the board to use some of the $75.7 million budget reserve fund, $20 million gas-lease fund and the $20 million remaining from its 1999 bond program.
"It's time to use part of that fund balance," he said. "And it's time for a TRE" -- a tax ratification election.
Associate Superintendent Cindy Powell cautioned that although the reserve fund looks healthy, it actually falls about $1 million short of state recommendation for the district under new, stricter formulas. She also noted that bond money has to be used on capital projects listed in the bond proposal that voters approved.
The district could generate $33 million if it raised the operations tax rate by 13 cents to the state-mandated maximum $1.17 per $100 of property value. The district's current operations tax rate is $1.04 and the debt-service rate is 29.5 cents, totaling $1.335.
Trustees would have to get voter approval of any increase over the current $1.04 rate.
After comments, Trustee John Hibbs said he recommends the district "move in the direction of doing the TRE." Many in the audience applauded.
But Trustee Jamie Sullins said an election is tricky because it couldn't occur before decisions on terminating contracts have to be made. If the voters did not approve the tax increase, that could put the district in a bind, she said.
Officials have done the math on other possible savings. An across-the-board pay cut would save $3.3 million for each 1 percent of reduction in salary.
But board Vice President Peter Baron said he opposes a pay cut because it would harm morale.
The district could save millions more if the state relaxed its current limit of 22 students per classroom in kindergarten through fourth grade. A 24-to-1 ratio would save $10 million, and a 25-to-1 ratio would save $14 million.
"This is very hard," board President Gloria Pena about likely layoffs and other cuts. "But we have to go in this direction. We don't have a choice."
Robert Cadwallader, 817-390-7641