Monday, April 4, 2011

Playing Plano Off Against Richardson

Recently, in response to impending cutbacks in education funding by the Texas state legislature, the Plano school district (PISD) announced plans to layoff 344 employees, including 223 teachers. So far, the Richardson school district (RISD) is hopeful of avoiding needing to take similar drastic action in Richardson.

After the jump, what should we make of this difference?

If one looks to The Dallas Morning News for analysis, you might expect to hear from Jeffrey Weiss, who usually covers RISD topics. But Weiss seems to be focused instead on JJ Pearce High School's ban on pooches at school sporting events. It's another blogger from DMN who comments, and he yields to the temptation to draw hasty conclusions about the different responses from Plano and Richardson ISDs to the state funding crisis. Rodger Jones, an editorial board writer, Richardson resident and complainer that there's no sidewalk from his Richardson home to the Bush DART station, has this take on the school funding crisis:

"Richardson and Garland are both in a House district represented by Angie Chen Button. ... So along comes debate in the Legislature on making deep cuts in education support. I can't imagine Button doesn't look around and think, 'My districts seem to be doing OK. How did the other ones get into that mess? Why should we bail them out?' "

Who knows what Angie Chen Button thinks? Her communications to constituents falls somewhat short of minimal acceptable performance. But the last thing Garland and Richardson students and families need is Rodger Jones encouraging Angie Chen Button to think that "my districts seem to be doing OK," thus giving her cover to cut the education budget. If he wants to know whether the RISD is weathering the storm (and it is a storm), he can go to the RISD and ask. The RISD says:

"The state's budget shortfall is due to a structural budget deficit and not because of the district's financial stewardship."
Structural means the shortfall is permanently built into the funding formula; it's not just due to this particular cyclical downturn in the economy. It also means that the Plano district shouldn't automatically be condemned for financial mismanagement. Why does Plano look like it's in so much worse shape than Richardson? The RISD suggests a reason:
"Richardson ISD is operating with a surplus budget for the 2010-11 school year. What is a surplus? Simply explained, the RISD Board of Trustees passed a balanced budget last June for the current school year, and with the increase of 1,200 additional students enrolling in RISD this year, we received more state funding, which resulted in a surplus -- more revenue than we had expected."

Not taking away from the RISD's well-deserved reputation for sound fiscal management, the RISD also deserves kudos for admitting that some of its surplus this year was due to factors beyond its control. The RISD budgeted for X number of students but had X+1,200 enroll, boosting its state funding and giving it a surplus. That surplus cushions the impending shortfall next year.

School districts are still in deep trouble and that includes Richardson and Garland, despite their successes so far in sheltering the classrooms from the worst of the cuts. Because the deficit is structural, the storm will not pass. It will be with us next school year and the one after that. The RISD can provide shelter only so long. The RISD says:

"The state's failure to fully invest in public education is dangerous and ultimately unfair. Texas students need and deserve a quality education. If public education is not fully funded, RISD students, in addition to others, and the state's economy will pay the price."

So, Rodger Jones, please quit playing off Plano against Richardson. All Texans are in this together. All of us will pay the price because of the education cuts Angie Chen Button and the rest of the legislators are making in Austin today.

The RISD's other state legislator, Stefani Carter, looks like she needs no political cover to cut education funding. She's proud of it. According to Carter's newsletter, she believes HB1 that she voted for and which cuts education funding by $7.8 billion, is one that will lead to a final bill that "will make Texans proud." She goes on to say:

"I recently had the opportunity to speak with ladies from the Richardson Independent School District regarding public education funding. Pictured left to right: Karen Holburn, Rep. Carter, Kim Caston & Lanet Greenhaw."

Carter turns this meeting into nothing more than a photo op. She doesn't tell us whether the "ladies" told her they would be proud of Carter's cuts to public school funding. In fact, Carter doesn't tell us anything about the concerns the RISD trustees expressed to her concerning her work in Austin. It doesn't take an honor student to draw some pessimistic conclusions from that.

P.S. The Texas Tribune speculated on who might be deserving of being on the list of Best and Worst State legislators for this session. One early assessment: "Best will be Dan Branch and John Carona. Worst will be Stef Carter."

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