School districts unite to fight steep education cuts

AUSTIN -- School officials from across the state staged a unified show of force Monday for a movement that started in the Aledo school district as they called on lawmakers to spare public schools from billions of dollars in funding cuts.

United behind the slogan "Make Education a Priority," leaders of local school districts said the draft state budgets unveiled over the last two weeks could have a disastrous effect on education, raising the prospect of massive layoffs and school closures throughout Texas.

"Don't balance this budget on the backs of the schoolchildren of Texas," said Dr. John Folks, superintendent of the Northside school district in San Antonio. He called the cuts "totally irresponsible."

The preliminary budgets, which legislators will use as a starting point for a two-year spending plan, call for up to $9.8 billion in public education cuts over the 2012-13 fiscal biennium. One education expert has projected that the cuts could force school districts to lay off up to 100,000 employees statewide.

The Make Education a Priority campaign began in midsummer in North Texas when supporters of the Aledo district set up a tent and began collecting signatures to draw attention to the state's school funding crisis. Since then, 549 of the state's 1,024 school districts have joined the campaign, including at least a half-dozen in North Texas.

"One by one, this shows what thousands of people can do when they come together," said Bobby J. Rigues, vice president of the Aledo school board.

School officials packed a news conference at the midwinter meeting of the Texas Association of School Administrators to tout the goals of the effort, some of them holding placards emblazoned with the campaign slogan.

Speakers stood alongside a table piled with boxes containing more than 5,000 letters. A giant Texas map at the front of the room displayed hundreds of red dots showing local school districts that support the effort.

Rigues and other officials said the show of unity among school boards is virtually unprecedented and illustrates the seriousness of the funding shortfall facing school districts. Folks, of Northside, said the proposed budget would force a 28 percent cut in his district.

The proposed budget cuts follow years of district belt-tightening after the state's target revenue system froze funding at 2005-06 levels, TASA officials said.

School officials are urging lawmakers to tap into the state's rainy day fund and look for new revenue sources, such as lifting certain sales tax exemptions, to bolster funding for education.

The rainy day fund, officially known as the Economic Stabilization Fund, is expected to reach $9.4 billion by the end of the 2012-13 biennium, but Gov. Rick Perry and other state leaders have opposed drawing from the fund, saying that the reserves may be needed for even tougher times down the road.

Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus have also made new or increased taxes off-limits as lawmakers try to balance the budget with new revenue. State lawmakers are facing a projected budget shortfall that has been estimated from $12 billion to as high as $27 billion.

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin Bureau chief.