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Fort Worth school district trustees ask for more information before declaring another emergency

FORT WORTH -- School trustees argued Tuesday night about whether to declare the district in a state of financial emergency that would open the door for layoffs.

No vote was taken, and the board asked administrators for more information.

It would be the third year in a row that trustees have taken the formal step of declaring "financial exigency," a state requirement before a school district can lay off employees.

There were layoffs in 2009 because of financial exigency. Some jobs were lost in 2010 because of program eliminations, such as the closing of the Horizons alternative school.

Chief Financial Officer Hank Johnson said the district could lose $50 million to $80 million in state funding over the next two years as Texas deals with a multibillion-dollar budget shortfall.

Trustee Carlos Vasquez said it was too soon to move toward job cuts because it is unclear what the Legislature will do. Vasquez opposed declaring financial exigency the last two times as well.

"We're using tactics that all these other school districts are using and scaring our employees half to death," Vasquez said.

But board President Ray Dickerson said the district must be prepared because significant state cuts are likely.

"I think people know a tornado is coming toward us, or a tsunami," Dickerson said.

Superintendent Melody Johnson warned that the district can't wait long to consider staff reductions because of some notification deadlines, such as when teachers must be told whether their contracts will be renewed for another year.

Some trustees said they wouldn't consider any job cuts without first getting a specific list of such recommendations and having plenty of time to study them.

"You could have brought that to us tonight," Trustee T.A. Sims said of potential job cuts.

Johnson said that there is no specific list of cuts yet, but that more information will be given to trustees in budget workshops that will be held almost weekly in the coming months.

Some trustees were unhappy that the district recently approved multimillion-dollar contracts to bring in new teachers through Teach for America and Texas Teaching Fellows, prominent alternative-certification programs. They said current teachers should not lose their jobs before teachers are hired through those programs.

District shortfalls

The district already has a nearly $30 million shortfall this year, and a $26.7 million shortfall is projected for the 2011-12 school year.

Administrators caution that the district may lose $15.7 million in state grants that help fund programs such as pre-kindergarten classes and the district's PEAK program, aimed at attracting the best teachers to the most struggling schools.

Trustees postponed a budget presentation that outlines how the district is looking to save money, including altering staffing ratios and freezing salaries, stipends and allowances. Officials are looking to cut department budgets by 5 to 10 percent.

But administrators are also looking at ways to make money. That could include selling products developed by the district, such as technology/computer services and student-related software, website advertising and various rental opportunities.

Trustees also voted to sign on to the statewide initiative called "Make Education a Priority," which urges lawmakers to put public schools first during the legislative session.

Eva-Marie Ayala, 817-390-7700

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