AUSTIN -- As teachers prepare for a weekend rally in Austin to protest nearly $10 billion in state education cuts, Gov. Rick Perry said Wednesday that the ultimate responsibility for district layoffs rests in the hands of local school officials, not the state.
"I welcome folks to come to Austin and be engaged in the process, but also remind them that Austin, Texas, particularly when we're talking about schools, is not the be-all, end-all from the standpoint of decision-making," Perry told reporters at the end of a news conference on state sovereignty.
Schools districts in North Texas and elsewhere in the state are preparing for potentially thousands of layoffs because of the reduction in state education assistance. The education cuts are part of draft state budgets that would eliminate up to $31.1 billion in state services over the next two years.
Although local school officials and education groups overwhelmingly blame the state for forcing the potential layoffs, Perry said "that is a local decision that will be made at the local districts."
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He also challenged district officials to follow the same kind of fiscal discipline that businesses and families face when making hard choices. Perry said school administrators should look first at cutting nonteaching positions -- which he said have shown "an extraordinary" increase over the past decade -- before eliminating teachers.
"The nonteaching core would be the first place I would look if there are going to be reductions," Perry said.
A rally on the south steps of the state Capitol on Saturday is being organized by a coalition called Save Texas Schools. Planners say they expect as many as 10,000 participants.
'Baffled' by Perry
"We're baffled by Governor Perry's comments," said Dax Gonzalez, spokesman for the Texas Association of School Boards. "Let there be no mistake that the decisions being made in school districts across the state regarding budget cuts and teacher layoffs are the direct results of decisions ... at the state Capitol."
School district officials in Tarrant County collectively shook their heads at Perry's remarks.
"It causes me much consternation that he would say something like that," said Cindy Lotton, the Keller district's school board president. "There are problems with funding from the state, and the districts have been tasked with cleaning up the mess."
The Keller district is expected to consider $16 million in reductions tonight that include cutting 156 positions -- 42 in central administration and 114 on campuses. Lotton noted that 80 percent of the district's personnel are directly involved in classrooms.
"Two percent of our employees are administrative, and we are making cuts there," Lotton said. "We're making cuts from our administration building down to our custodians."
Carroll Trustee Sue Armstrong described Perry's remarks as "comical," noting that Carroll has already cut $2 million from its budget, mostly from the central office and via teacher attrition. "The next cuts we're looking at are to our gifted and talented program," Armstrong said.
State funding concerns
Fort Worth district spokesman Clint Bond said a letter that Superintendent Melody Johnson sent to employees last week could have also served as a response to Perry's remarks.
"Despite what you may have heard, the truth is that this current crisis is due to a structural problem with Texas' school finance funding system -- not the inefficiencies of school districts," Johnson wrote. Johnson has disputed any notion that the district's ratio of teachers to nonteacher staff has changed much recently.
Lonnie Hollingsworth, director of government relations for the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, said he agrees with Perry's statement that the "ultimate decision about where to cut will be made at the local level" but he called on lawmakers to take steps to avoid the projected deep cuts in state education assistance.
"We do think the Legislature should consider the state's rainy-day fund and all other options to maintain the current level of funding for schools," Hollingsworth said. "We don't have a problem with looking at school district efficiency," he said. "If there are school districts that are not spending their money wisely, then we think there should be more controls from the state, not less."
Staff writer Eva-Marie Ayala contributed to this report.
Dave Montgomery is chief of the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau. 512-476-4294
Aman Batheja, 817-390-7695