Fort Worth legislator proposes 20% cut in schools' electric rates

In a move that could help cash-strapped school districts avoid cutting jobs, state Sen. Wendy Davis filed a bill Wednesday that would reduce base electricity rates for districts by 20 percent.

Such a discount -- which state colleges and universities already get -- could save the Fort Worth school district about $3.2 million, which district officials said equates to about 60 jobs.

Many districts are already struggling with significant shortfalls as legislators consider cutting $5 billion from public schools.

"Obviously, now it is tremendously important to help districts save money everywhere they can," said Davis, D-Fort Worth. "The bigger question is, What do we do at the state level to fix the structural deficit problem, which froze school district funding at 2005 levels while underfunding them?"

School officials testified this week before the Senate Education Committee about funding needs, adjustments to 22-to-1 student-teacher ratios, salary requirements and other concerns. Some noted that Davis' bill would help them keep jobs.

Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, has also filed legislation to free up funding for schools.

Shapiro, who chairs the education panel, said Tuesday that she filed a "shell bill" that will include more cost-saving provisions as it progresses. She said she hopes that it will help school districts with some mandates that restrict their options, such as student-teacher ratios and salary requirements.

During testimony before the committee, the president of the Texas Association of School Boards asked lawmakers to ease restrictions so districts could choose teacher furloughs or pay cuts instead of layoffs.

Local officials said furloughs in a school setting would present numerous logistical problems.

Hank Johnson, the Fort Worth district's chief financial officer, said a one-day furlough could save the district about $2.2 million in salaries. If all employees took it at once and the district could close campuses for a day, the savings would be even more, he said.

"It's a concept we would definitely look at if the law changes, but it's one of those things you hate to do," Johnson said. "If you close school for a day or five days in the year, that's a lot of instructional time for kids."

Some educators see a disconnect between what legislators think and how schools actually operate.

Carroll district officials recently discussed the difficulty of managing furloughs -- even during summer. That district is opening two new schools next year and will need much of the summer to move in equipment, furniture and other items. The first version of the House budget could have led to a one-month furlough for nonteachers in each of the next two years, officials said.

"There's technology that still has to run in the month of July, summer school, curriculum being written, construction and maintenance," Carroll spokeswoman Julie Thannum said. "I'm not exactly sure how we'd be able to pull that off."

Clay Robison, a spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association, said that his organization opposes furloughs but that teachers must be part of the discussion.

"School boards and superintendents shouldn't just be given carte blanche on this," he said.

Eva-Marie Ayala, 817-390-7700