AUSTIN -- The Texas House on Thursday gave preliminary approval to Senate-passed legislation that would enable school districts to reduce salaries, impose furloughs and alter contract-notification requirements to absorb the effects of reduced state funding.
The measure appears on track for passage in the special session, which is to end no later than June 29.
The vote on Senate Bill 8 was 74-59. Final approval in the House would return the bill to the Senate, where members can accept the House amendments or call for a conference committee to resolve differences between the House and Senate bills.
SB8 has divided the education community. School administrators support the bill as giving them extra flexibility to deal with budget shortfalls. However, teachers have tried to stop the bill, saying it would roll back their salaries and contract protections.
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"Senate Bill 8 does nothing to address the budgetary crisis," said Rita Haecker, president of the Texas State Teachers Association. "It is an unwarranted attack on public schools and teachers, which will worsen, not improve the educational opportunities for Texas children."
Jenny Caputo, spokeswoman for the Texas Association of School Administrators, said the bill's provisions enable school districts to deal with "unprecedented cuts" coming under a new two-year budget that cuts state services by 8 percent.
"We're glad to see it pass," she said. "It gives local communities the tools they need to decide what's in the best interest of teachers, of students, of parents."
The state's 2012-13 budget would reduce state funding for school districts by $4 billion.
Must-pass legislation now making its way through the special session includes a school finance package that would implement the cuts.
Provision of the bill
SB8 would let school districts reduce salaries for classroom teachers, librarians, counselors and nurses to below those of the 2010-11 year, the salary floor in current law. An amendment also includes administrators in the potential reductions. The average teacher salary for the 2009-10 school year was $49,544, according to the Texas Education Agency.
School officials would also be allowed to order employee furloughs -- that is, unpaid days off -- for up to six noninstructional days, such as staff-development time. An amendment by Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, would require that salary reductions caused by the furloughs be spread out to help ease the effect on personnel.
In another controversial provision, school officials could wait until 10 days before the end of the school year, rather than the current 45, to tell teachers that their contracts will not be renewed.
Teachers say they wouldn't have enough time to find a new job with another district under that schedule.
Currently, teachers who seek employment elsewhere while under contract risk losing their teaching certificate.
The bill would also remove the requirement that staff reductions start with people with the least seniority. Rep. Mark Shelton, R-Fort Worth, won passage of an amendment that reductions be based primarily on teacher appraisals in the specific teaching fields.
Another Shelton amendment that was approved would repeal automatic pay increases in the state's 200-plus open-enrollment charter schools. Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, called the amendment an "attack on teachers," but Shelton said removing the requirement would enable charter schools to save money and avoid layoffs.
The bill would also allow the state education commissioner to grant a waiver for current class size limits if the amount of funding for a district drops below that of the preceding year. Current limits prevent enrollment in grades K-4 from exceeding 22 students.
SB8 recycles elements of a major education bill that died during the regular session, which ended May 30. The special session version of the bill is sponsored by the leaders of the Legislature's two education committees -- Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, and Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands.
The Weatherford school district is considering furloughs and a 1 percent pay cut. "The board is considering any and all options of trying to maintain a balanced budget and to save money," said Derik Moore, communication director. The board will make no decision "until the Legislature concludes its special session," he said.
The United Educators Association of Texas, which represents 19,000 teachers and support personnel, opposed the bill, but Executive Director Larry Shaw said one element of "good news" in the bill is a requirement that the state education commissioner determine what constitutes a financial emergency.
"The bad part of it is that it passed," he said. "The good part of it is [that] it's got some restrictions."
This report includes material from The Associated Press.
Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin Bureau chief. 512-476-4294