AUSTIN -- The Texas Senate approved legislation Monday to allow school districts to furlough personnel and reduce teachers' salaries as parents and educators sounded off against $4 billion in state education cuts in a phone-in town hall meeting.
Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, chairwoman of the Education Committee, said SB8, approved by an 18-12 vote, would give school districts more flexibility to respond to budget constraints without firing teachers. More controversial measures moving through the Texas House would enlarge class sizes and eliminate a long-standing minimum salary schedule for teachers.
"We're just giving these new tools," Shapiro said. "We're not saying you have to do this."
Callers to a telephone town hall meeting with Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, and Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, assailed a compromise school funding bill that seems poised to pass the House this week despite Davis' last-moment filibuster that sent the Legislature into a special session.
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While only a few got to participate in the conference call, most of the 5,500 callers who registered are educators, and a few identified themselves as concerned parents. Top issues included the contractual-rights provisions, which would let districts furlough teachers and cut their salaries, as well as class size increases.
A teacher from San Antonio laid off in April asked about the inequality of funding per student.
"There is a question of the adequacy of funding, and also one of the vast disparities in what some school districts themselves are getting," Davis said. "The current bill would dilute funding by 6 percent for all districts during the first year [of the upcoming biennium]. In the second year, 75 percent of the cuts will come from wealthier districts and only 25 percent from poorer districts."
Shapiro said pay cuts implemented under SB8 could be restored after education funding improves. But Davis offered an unsuccessful amendment that would allow lawmakers to end the provisions after two years, saying it could be several years before education funding returns to current levels.
Under the bill, school districts could impose furloughs for all contract personnel for up to six days. The bill would also shorten the time required to give notice that a contract will be not be extended, from 45 days before the end of the school year to 10 days.
The bill would also end the mandate that teachers receive at least the equivalent of their 2010-11 salaries. But it does not call for the elimination of minimum salary schedules as proposed in a House bill, an option that has ignited fierce opposition from teachers groups.
Lawmakers began pushing the measures during the regular session after school districts warned of extensive layoffs as a result of the looming education cuts. The most controversial measure, HB400, provoked a clash between teachers and administrators over proposals to abandon the minimum salary requirements and remove the 22-to-1 student-teacher ratio in kindergarten through fourth grade.
Elements of HB400 have been reintroduced during the special session, said Lonnie Hollingsworth of the Texas Classroom Teachers Association. "We're fighting things harder in the House," Hollingsworth said.
Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief. 512-476-4294
Shirley Jinkins, 817-390-7657