DFW districts prepare to make deeper cuts in face of state's draft budget

Funds for pre-kindergarten classes, art education, teacher incentive pay and technology are at risk as part of major cuts to public schools, according to state budget recommendations.

The Texas Education Agency would take a $6.7 billion hit over the next two years -- including $5 billion that would go directly to school districts -- under a draft released Tuesday night by the state's Legislative Budget Board.

The proposed budget projects that the state will be nearly $10 billion short of the funding level required by law to support schools, meaning that legislators will almost certainly have to tackle a school finance plan this session. The proposal recommends reducing each school district's state funding by about 14 percent.

Should the budget draft become reality, the trickle-down effects could be devastating for area districts, local officials said.

"Everything about it gives me heartburn," said Hank Johnson, the Fort Worth district's chief financial officer.

"There's just no way to get a handle on this without looking at cutting some jobs."

The proposed cuts could mean a loss of $75 million to $80 million to the Fort Worth district, Johnson said. He said the district would have to consider making drastic changes to make up the difference, with much of it likely to come from job reductions.

Grapevine-Colleyville district officials figure that their budget hit would be $11.9 million to $13.5 million a year if the preliminary plan stands.

"Before the comptroller's revenue report came out, we were looking at reductions at half this amount, 5 to 6 percent," said Elaine Cogburn, Grapevine-Colleyville's chief financial officer. "Now it looks like more than a 15 percent reduction."

It is too early to know what would be on the chopping block in Grapevine-Colleyville if the budget is approved, Cogburn said.

Crowley Superintendent Dan Powell said the proposed education cuts are worse than he expected, but he doesn't think that the Legislature's final budget will be as bad. Crowley is looking at more than $5 million in state cuts under the proposal, which would mean eliminating jobs, cutting back on travel and other reductions, he said.

The district took drastic measures last year that included cutting 145 jobs and outsourcing food service operations to make up for a $6 million shortfall.

Powell said districts like his that are on the low end of the complicated per-pupil funding formula will be hit a lot harder, which could lead some districts to file another school finance lawsuit because of funding inequities.

That will give districts like Crowley "a lot more ammunition to take an adversarial situation in court," he said.

A particularly hard cut for educators is the proposed elimination of $1.3 billion from the TEA's state discretionary grants.

Those grants help fund much of Texas' programs aimed at helping the most struggling students, such as those who speak limited English and those seeking help with Advanced Placement courses.

The grants also cover half-day pre-kindergarten for districts, some of which make up the costs themselves to offer full-day classes.

Keller district officials said the loss of technology allotment funds would limit the district's ability to follow its replacement schedule for outdated equipment.

Keller is expected to receive $953,635 from the allotment this year. "If that went away, that would absolutely hurt," said Mark Youngs, Keller's deputy superintendent of finance and intergovernmental relations.

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