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"Robin Hood" Can't Save This School District

By Bill Zeeble, KERA 90.1 reporter

Dallas – Bill Zeeble, KERA 90.1 Reporter: Master and Lead teachers are specialists in their topics. They teach other teachers the best new education methods. And they help schools like Richardson excel, according to Dr. Joan Brasier, Associate Superintendent with the Richardson Independent School District. She has only praise for the 21 Lead teachers in the district.

Dr. Joan Brasier, Associate Superintendent, Richardson Independent School District: They?re in those jobs ?cause we think there?s a need. We value that and think we need it, and think we?ll feel the pinch if we no longer have it.

Zeeble: Richardson is now feeling the pain of that pinch.

Brasier: We had to tell all these people, there was a great probability their positions could be changed next year. They would no longer exist under operations. We really had to re-evaluate how they?d be funded, but also how we would resolve who stays and who would have to go.

Zeeble: Brasier says those decisions will be up to a school?s principal. He or she will look at the budget and decide whether there?s enough money to keep that specialist. Richardson?s Assistant Superintendent of Financial Services, Dave Tiffin, says the district has no choice. Richardson ISD, like 83 other Texas school districts, is property-wealthy. Under the state?s Robin Hood plan, it sends Austin millions of dollars a year for redistribution to property-poor districts. W. David Tiffin, Assistant Superintendent, Financial Services, Richardson Independent School District: Richardson ISD is sending 33 million dollars to Austin under Robin Hood. Next year that jumps to 47 million. Out of a total budget of 250 million, we?ve made the easy cuts. We?re into the harder cuts - the majority of our budget is people.

Zeeble: While Tiffin blames Robin Hood in part for the financial crunch, State Representative Scott Hochberg doesn?t buy it. He chairs the House Subcommittee on Education.

Scott Hochberg, Texas Representative (District 132, Houston) and Chair, Texas House Public Education Committee: Richardson, even after recapture, still has more money per student than Dallas, or Mesquite, or Wilmer-Hutchins, or most districts in the area.

Zeeble: Hochberg suggests the districts with less money are suffering even more. Teel Bivins, Chair of the Senate Education Committee, agrees. He says Richardson is just doing what it needs to, and what property-poor districts have had to do for years.

Teel Bivins, Texas Senator (District 31) and Chair, Texas Senate Education Committee: Tighten their belts, consolidate course offerings, do all the things your family and mine do when revenues don?t cover projected expenses - there?s nothing easy about school financing.

Zeeble: Richardson school officials hope they don?t lose teachers in the process. They say all their Master and Lead teachers will likely fill vacated classroom slots and maintain their same pay. But that?s a little deceiving, claims Susanne Casner, because elementary teachers work fewer days, so earn less. Casner is a Richardson Master-technology teacher who does not intend to stick around, despite strong personal ties to the district.

Susanne Casner, Instructional Technology Master Teacher, Richardson Independent School District: I?ll look for a similar position in another district. That?s difficult for me. I?ve grown up here; my sisters work here; my mom works here. And I hate to leave. But I believe that strongly in technology and education.

Zeeble: Given her situation, Casner finds it ironic that Governor Perry?s been traveling the state this week pushing for legislation to create more master positions. The Governor was at Dallas?s Long Middle School yesterday.

Rick Perry, Texas Governor: This bill is not unlike the Master reading teacher program we passed in 1999, even to the point of the $5000 bonus for the expert math teachers in this case. Hopefully we?ll see that legislation follow the same track as the Master reading teacher program last session and become law. It would go into effect September 2001.

Zeeble: Becky Berndt is another Master technology teacher in the Richardson School District.

Becky Berndt, Instructional Technology Master Teacher, Richardson Independent School District: If the Governor?s here saying we need math Lead teachers, similar to literacy Lead teachers, we have that in place. But it?s being taken away from us. Ultimately, the kids are the ones who benefit from having this kind of support.

Zeeble: The solution, say teachers and everyone interviewed for this story, is a change in school funding, something that?s fair to property-poor and wealthy districts. Richardson?s Finance Director, Dave Tiffin, though, thinks one catalyst for change could be parents in a district like Richardson going to court, saying something like this.

Tiffin: We moved from where we used to live, to where we live today, for a variety of factors, one of which is a quality of education. Now you, through state funding formulas, have forced the district we chose to curtail their program to such a manner that we no longer can get what we expected when we moved. We therefore bring a suit against you, the State of Texas, for that adverse condition.

Zeeble: The time for major funding changes, say state lawmakers and the Governor, will be in the 2003 legislative session. Senator Bivins says by then nearly half of the state?s school districts will have reached their legal taxing limit. They won?t be able to raise more necessary money.

Bivins: We?ll have a political crisis on our hands, whether we have a court order mandating us to do something or not. The politics of the issue will demand that the legislature react.

Zeeble: In the meantime, a number of property-wealthy districts are still talking of suing the state to keep more of their money. Richardson has not joined that group. But the district is counting a March 3rd bond election to ease the budget problems. It?s also looking into grants that might pay for the some of the threatened Master teacher positions. For KERA 90.1, I?m Bill Zeeble.