Despite efforts by Trustee Ann Sutherland to vote down the Fort Worth school district's $792.9 million general budget, board members approved the plan which includes a 2 percent pay increase for all employees, including a $53,000 starting salary for teachers.
The 6-3 vote in favor of the budget came several hours after Sutherland told the Star-Telegram she agreed to support certain school board members for officer posts in exchange for votes against the proposed budget for the upcoming academic year.
Before the school board meeting, Sutherland told the Star-Telegram in an email statement that she was moved to cut this deal because she has reservations about the budget.
"When questions came up regarding the May election of the board president and other leadership positions, I made it clear that I would not support any candidates who did not agree to oppose the budget," Sutherland stated in the email. "In order to avoid violating the open meetings rules, the conversations were with three other board candidates. All agreed they would oppose this budget and, as is known, I voted for the current board leadership."
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In May, the board voted for a school board president and other officers. A series of motions nominating board members Christene Moss and Jacinto Ramos as president failed and Tobi Jackson was re-elected with Sutherland's support. The other current officers are T.A. Sims, 1st vice president and Anael Luebanos, secretary. Sutherland is the 2nd vice president.
Jackson, Sims and Sutherland voted against the budget. Before casting her vote, Jackson said she voted against the budget because it has a deficit of about $37 million.
"I will be voting against the budget tonight, but my reason is if we continue to adopt deficit budgets, we eventually won't have the two months of reserves that we have to have," Jackson said, alluding to how other districts have been approving budgets with deficits.
Jackson reiterated that point in a text message to the Star-Telegram after the meeting, adding: "Dr. Sutherland's claim that I agreed to vote against the budget is simply not accurate."
Jackson's text also stated: "I took Dr. Sutherland at her own public words when she voted for me, that she was voting for my leadership and our accomplishments as a board over that past year."
Before voting in favor of the budget, Luebanos said he supports $12 million earmarked for school safety. He also said he understands that adjustments will be made to balance the budget.
"School safety is our No. 1 priority," Luebanos said.
School board members Ashley Paz, Moss, Judy Needham, Norman Robbins and Ramos also voted for the budget.
The vote came after nine presentations to trustees either in workshops or during regular school board meetings. Throughout the process, Sutherland has been a critic of the spending plans. She told the Star-Telegram she is worried that too many dollars are being spent at the central administration at the expense of schools.
That theme was reflected in Sutherland's blog and in an ultimatum to fellow school board trustees in a May 1 email in which she said she was "alarmed" that fellow trustees weren't more interested in proposed staffing changes.
"Just so everyone is on the same page, I want you to know that I will not vote for any budget that contains extra dollars for the central office while shorting our schools, as this one does," Sutherland wrote in the email obtained by the Star-Telegram. "Moreover, I will not support any candidate for board office who does."
Sutherland issued the new statement before Tuesday's meeting in which she also defended making the exchange for votes.
"However rarely observed in local school-board affairs, such agreements are an important ingredient in boards of trustees taking real leadership in our schools," Sutherland said.
Inside the budget
The employee salary increases are covered in a $12.2 million item in the general fund budget for the upcoming 2018-19 school year. The budget includes another $3.2 million earmarked for the district's leadership academies and $800,000 for a substitute incentive program, said Elsie Schiro, chief financial officer for Fort Worth schools.
Those are continually expenses added to the budget, she said. About $12 million is earmarked for security and monitoring services for the district. It is money built in to pay for school safety needs, Schiro said.
Earlier in the day, Superintendent Kent Scribner defended the proposed budget, explaining that it reflects investment in schools while adjusting for a decrease in students in the district.
Scribner said because of demographic shifts, the district had over-budgeted in staff. The proposed budget adjusts for student demographic shifts and complies with teacher-to-student ratios, he said.
Additionally, the readjustment reflects placing teachers in areas they are needed, he said.
“We saw a decrease of a little over 1,000 students,” Scribner said, adding: "We were actually $9 million overstaffed at that point.”
Still, the district is hiring 95 teachers as part of this budget, including teachers for the I.M. Terrell Academy for STEM and VPA campus and 60 teachers with expertise in teaching students with dyslexia.
Scribner defended expenses tied to the central office. He said many are actually assets for campuses — such as school nurses and behavior interventionists. "The assertion that central office expenditures is growing is simply not true,” Scribner said.
School officials said the deficit issue typically evens out throughout the school year as they plan their spending at about 97 percent instead of 100 percent of available dollars.
This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.