Texas Education Agency proposes $135.5 million in cutbacks to help with budget shortfall

The Texas Education Agency is proposing $135.5 million in cuts -- including science lab grants and funding for steroid testing -- as part of the state's across-the-board plan to reduce spending.

Last month, state agencies and other entities were told to cut their budgets by 5 percent for fiscal 2010-11 to help ease a projected budget shortfall of $10 billion to $20 billion.

Local district officials declined to comment Tuesday, saying they had not had time to digest the reduction plan.

Arthur Martin, assistant superintendent of financial services for the Lubbock school district, said finance directors statewide will likely scrutinize school budgets and state and federal resources in coming weeks to make up for the planned cuts.

"There are going to have to be some hard planning sessions to see how we can fund these," said Martin, who was in Fort Worth for the annual Texas Association of School Business Officials convention. "If the state's short of money, then everybody's short of money."

The proposed cuts come a month after Gov. Rick Perry announced that the state would not apply for more than $700 million in federal stimulus funds under the Race to the Top program, designed to improve education for American children.

Perry said the state should not be forced to adopt national curriculum standards, a requirement for the grants, or be saddled with ongoing costs for the initiatives.

The TEA proposal suggests that districts could make up some of the cuts through other federal grants and bond programs.

Larry Shaw, executive director of the United Educators Association, which represents area school employees, said the state keeps raising requirements while cutting the funds needed to improve schools.

"It's penny-wise and pound-foolish," Shaw said of the cuts.

For example, the cuts include eliminating the Texas Principal Leadership Program, which provides training for leaders at low-performing schools. Shaw said the training helps prevent burnout and create strong leaders at low-performing schools. A recent University of Texas study found that 70 percent of Texas principals leave within five years.

The largest proposed cut is $25 million in grants to help poor districts pay for science labs. Beginning with the Class of 2011, high school students must take four years of science. No Tarrant County districts have received money from the grants.

"What this really amounts to is an unfunded mandate," Martin said. "Setting up a science lab is not cheap."

Agency officials also proposed eliminating the $1 million it would cost to continue steroid testing for student-athletes competing in University Interscholastic League events.

Tim Buchanan, football coach at Aledo High School, said the testing program made it easier for student-athletes to say no to steroids.

"It gives a kid a reason to say no when that peer pressure comes in, for recreational drugs or steroids," Buchanan said.

He doesn't foresee Aledo doing steroid testing.

"I'm sure some district budgets are sound enough to do drug testing. We're not in that boat."

The program had already been cut from $6 million to $2 million for 2010-11.

In 2008-09, more than 45,000 students at 795 schools were tested, and 19 students tested positive.

The TEA would also cut about $15 million in the Texas High School Initiative, a dropout prevention program.

It would lose funding for a collaborative dropout pilot program that helps districts coordinate services with local businesses to increase job skills and provide employment opportunities for students. Fort Worth was one of five districts in the state given preliminary approval for such a grant last month.

Some area districts could be affected by $16 million in cuts to the optional extended-year program, which helps districts pay for extended days, weekends or other efforts to help at-risk students. Hurst-Euless-Bedford, for example, uses that money for summer school. About 90 percent of students in such programs were promoted to the next grade, according to the TEA.

The proposal also includes $10 million in cuts to textbook and kindergarten materials, coming on the heels of a 15 percent cut directed by the Legislature.

EVA-MARIE AYALA, 817-390-7700