Many Texas school districts uncertain about budgeting for pay raises

Many Texas school districts are having to set their budgets for the new fiscal year without knowing if they are required to increase teacher pay.

With a lack of guidance, some districts, including Keller and Fort Worth, are hedging their bets and increasing pay, despite multimillion-dollar budget shortfalls.

Other districts, including Grapevine-Colleyville, have frozen pay. Later, if they are told they are required to provide increases, they say they'll have to take the money from savings.

In late January, Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott asked the Texas attorney general to clear up the salary questions, which are related to a bill approved in the last legislative session. That bill, HB 3646, required school districts to give pay raises of at least $80 per month for the 2009-10 school year to teachers, counselors, librarians, nurses and speech pathologists.

That raise had to be in addition to the normal "step" increase the employee would receive for experience under a district's salary schedule.

At issue, Scott wrote, was whether the targeted employees are entitled to an additional step increase during the 2010-11 school year.

Most attorney general opinions are issued within 180 days of the request, giving the agency until July 26 to respond. But Scott and the Texas Association of School Boards asked for an expedited opinion.

Noting that payroll accounts for 80 percent of a school district's expenses, Scott said many school districts begin their budgeting process in the spring. "Consequently, your response to my questions ... could have a significant impact on each districts' considerations," he wrote Feb. 4.

The school board association wrote that answers in the case are "urgently needed."

Attorney general spokesman Thomas Kelley said the office won't comment on a pending case.

The Texas Education Agency also declined to comment, said spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson.In Tarrant County, a number of school districts that start their new fiscal year July 1 have already voted on budgets.

Grapevine-Colleyville finalized and adopted its budget Monday, not providing any pay increases.

The $143 million budget carries a $2.8 million deficit, covered by savings. "Should the attorney general's decision require districts to provide an additional step increase ... GCISD will have to comply and provide any remaining balance owed to individuals in the state-identified group," according to information in the school board packet.

If a pay increase is mandated, the district will have to amend its new budget by taking an additional $350,000 from savings, said Tommie Johnson, the district's human resources executive director.

Keller, which is projecting a deficit of up to $6.4 million, had discussed imposing a pay freeze. But with a July 9 deadline for teachers to renew their contracts, Keller administrators said they could not wait for the attorney general's guidance. On Monday, they voted 5-2 to go ahead with routine step increases for instructional professionals.

In Fort Worth school district, Hank Johnson, the chief financial officer, told trustees to expect the attorney general to require the step increase. So the district included it in the budget, at a cost of $3.2 million. On top of that, the district granted a 2 percent raise at a cost of $10 million.

The budget has a shortfall of nearly $28 million.

Birdville, facing a budget shortfall of nearly $1 million, votes tonight on a $162.5 million budget that does not include employee pay raises. Yet, the school board has not ruled out a pay hike. Trustees want to get updated property valuations to get a more complete financial picture before deciding.

"How the attorney general rules on this isn't what the school board is looking at. They're not waiting on an AG's opinion," district spokesman Mark Thomas said.

Any raise would be covered by savings, said Joe Tolbert, school board president.

The Arlington school district, where the fiscal year begins Sept. 1, expects to have the attorney general's guidance before setting its budget.

If the step increase is required, the district, facing a fourth year of deficit spending, would incur $2.4 million of additional expense, according to Cindy Powell, associate superintendent for finance.

Many school districts are budgeting for the step increases, said Larry West, United Educators Association's regional manager, who has been attending budget hearings throughout the area. Other districts are giving raises of about 2 percent so that they are covered if the attorney general rules that employees must get a pay hike, he said.

The attorney general has received a number of legal briefs in connection with the case.

The Texas American Federation of Teachers and Texas Counseling Association said districts should be required to pay the step increases.

"Educators are entitled to a salary step increase for both years of the biennium, based upon years of service and local salary schedule," wrote Shannon Noble, the Texas Counseling Association's legal and legislative counsel.

The Texas Association of School Boards believes that the law says school districts are not required to pay the step increases. "We strongly urge you to decline to infer that HB 3646 requires all districts to provide eligible employees with step increases for the 2010-11 school year," wrote Sarah B. Winkler, the group's president.

Tarrant districts have been aggressive in recent years in raising pay, as they competed for the best teachers. But as revenues have fallen short, many districts have had to look for budget cuts, and some are planning to ask for tax increases in coming months.

Jessamy Brown, 817-390-7326

Sandra Engelland, 817-431-2231