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To Fund Teacher Raises, Texas Forgoes New Buses, Instruments

The Legislature killed a school funding bill after it was tied to a contentious school voucher plan that would use public funds for private schools, forcing districts to lay off staff and new buses to afford teacher raises.

With a funding boost stalled in the Legislature, public school districts in Texas are forgoing new buses and band instruments, tapping federal emergency dollars and laying off administrators to fund raises for teachers amid a workforce shortage.

Districts are scrambling after state lawmakers declined to pass a teacher pay raise bill or a comprehensive school funding plan, despite broad support and a record $30 billion-plus budget surplus.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has said he'll call lawmakers back to Austin to reconsider the funding this fall. But many districts say they cannot afford to wait with school starting soon and a summer deadline to enact their next school budgets.

While the San Antonio Independent School District already was to shutter schools to manage a budget shortfall, it is now planning to lay off central office staff to come up with money for its largest teacher raise in 25 years. Competition among districts to hire staff is so fierce, especially for special education and bilingual teachers, the district feels it has no choice, said San Antonio ISD Superintendent Jaime Aquino.

"I don't foresee that our state is going to do right for our kids," Aquino said. "So we have to take care of our kids and our staff, and I have to find a way of making teaching much more manageable."

This year, teachers and education groups expected that at least some of the state's record budget surplus would be invested in public schools. Texas' per-pupil education spending ranks 38 in the nation, while average teacher pay lags the national average by about $8,000.

A year ago, a survey of teachers in Texas public schools found three-quarters were seriously considering leaving the profession, with other studies finding plummeting morale due to low pay, huge workloads and political attacks from lawmakers in the state.

Schools now face a shortage of teachers, counselors, janitors, bus drivers and other staff. Most troubling, experts say, is the loss of veteran educators whose experience is critical to help train new staff.

Stacey Ward, a fifth grade teacher in Humble ISD, said teachers don't go into the profession for the money. Still, she said, low salaries make it impossible for some educators to stay.

Ward, who has been teaching for 27 years, makes just under $74,000. If she were not married, she said, she likely would need a second job like many of the other teachers at her campus. Humble ISD this year instituted a 3 percent minimum raise for employees, which the district said it achieved through careful budgeting.

"The state should look at that as a good example. They're taking care of teachers — which is the state's job, to fully fund education. I believe that's in the constitution, and that's not happening," Ward said.

Earlier this year, a panel of teachers and policy experts recommended the state fund teacher pay raises, among other fixes, in response to a study Abbott commissioned last year to find solutions for the teacher shortage.

While the policy had bipartisan support in the Legislature, it ultimately died after GOP senators tethered the teacher pay bump to a contentious school voucher plan that would send public dollars to private schools.

Abbott, who made vouchers a top priority this year, indicated the policies must be considered a package deal in the upcoming special session, which critics fear will put public school funds at risk.

Until lawmakers agree on a plan, public schools cannot tap the multibillion-dollar boost earmarked for them in the state budget.

Ward described Abbott's approach as holding public school funding "hostage" over efforts to enact private school vouchers.

A spokesman for Abbott said the third-term Republican "has prioritized public education funding and support for our hardworking teachers throughout his time in office."

"The Governor will continue working with the legislature to support our teachers as we build a brighter future for all Texans," spokesman Andrew Mahaleris said in a written statement.

A recent Hearst Newspapers analysis of school funding data found that inflation-adjusted state education spending has decreased since 2015, when Abbott took office.

'Disheartening to Communities'

Teachers, school administrators and school board members are frustrated over the Legislature's inaction on school funding at a time of immense financial pressure. Districts' expenses have been driven up by inflation, but state funding has not been increased to adjust for those changes since 2019. Collectively, there is also a $2 billion gap between what districts spend on special education and what they receive from the Texas Education Agency.

In a June board meeting, Alvin ISD approved its budget, which included a 3 percent cost-of-living raise for teachers and staff. Although they'd originally planned for it, the budget did not include funds for new school buses, updates to HVAC systems and new band instruments, said Daniel Combs, chief financial officer at the district.

"Unfortunately, political maneuvering at the Capitol resulted in teacher compensation not being addressed even with a record surplus," he said. "And I think that's disheartening to teachers. It's disheartening to communities."

At Klein ISD, outside Houston, district officials panned the Legislature's "outright failure to adequately fund public education as required by the Texas Constitution" in written response to questions. The district diverted funds from planned facilities projects to pay for a $3,600 raise to returning teachers and staff.

Other districts, including North East and Northside in San Antonio, used federal COVID-19 relief funds to cover teacher raises, as did Fort Bend and Willis near Houston. Those funds were allocated to help districts respond to COVID-19 and recover from the pandemic. Many districts still have money left over, but it will run out eventually.

The conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation has argued that school districts have plenty of cash to fund raises for teachers and don't need more from the state.

In an email Tuesday, the group said that since 1970, teacher salaries have increased 16 percent, adjusted for inflation, as federal National Center for Education Statistics data showed that per-student funding in Texas has risen 166 percent, adjusted for inflation.

"We continue, time and time again, to add more and more money to public education, while at the same time using the money to fund things that do not directly benefit the students," wrote Mandy Drogin, an education advocate at TPPF.

Monty Exter, a lobbyist with the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said he's not hopeful that more money will be forthcoming for schools — at least not yet.

"I think that things aren't probably going to change until we have an election cycle," he said.

"Elections have consequences. Collectively we got what we voted for."

(c)2023 the Houston Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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