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School Staffing At Risk In State Budget

By Shelley Kofler, KERA News

Dallas, TX – The consequences of a revenue shortfall in Austin could become a little clearer later today. That's when the House releases its first draft of a two-year budget that will be $15 billion dollars lighter. The initial budget will spare no service including public education. KERA's Shelley Kofler talked to a key lawmaker who will help decide where to cut.

By some estimates public schools would need $5.5 billion more- not less- just to do what they're doing now. That's because federal stimulus money is no longer available, and Texas is expected to add another 150,000 students during the next two years.

Eissler: It's like we add a new Fort Worth Independent School District every year.

Rep. Rob Eissler is a former school board member from the Woodlands, the Republican who chairs the House Education Committee.

Eissler: Something I've been looking at for the past four years is how school districts spend their money. It's not like we want to shortchange anybody but there are ways we can get more efficient.

Being more efficient basically means finding cuts in spending. And to do that you have to look at jobs.

Eissler: The ingredient to school cost is staffing. Between 85 and 90 percent of a school budget is staffing.

That's why there's been so much discussion about lifting the requirement that says elementary classes can have no more than 22 students. Fewer required teachers cuts spending. Eissler says it's something that should be discussed. He says studies show a good teacher can often be more effective in improving student performance than small classes.

But Eissler seems to be even more interested in "efficiencies" for non-teaching staff.

Eissler: Right now we have as many non-teachers employed by our schools as teachers. I think it's about 620,000 maybe 650,000 and half aren't teachers.

Eissler says if you reduce the number of counselors, librarians , administrators and other non-teaching staff to where it was in 2006 you could save $3 billion in the next budget. That's more than half the funding schools are expected to lose.

Eissler also thinks districts can efficiently cut costs by sharing expenses.

Eissler: Dallas County for example has a separate transportation system that saves $250 per students per year. There are other areas. It could be maintenance, food service, personnel, payroll.

Eissler says funding cuts from the state might be accompanied by less regulation. The best run, most efficient districts might have fewer state reports to file, less student testing.

Just how "efficient" Texas schools must become will become clearer with the release of the first budget draft. It's the starting point for what will be many difficult choices.

Email Shelley Kofler