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Staring Down CISD's $8M Deficit

Feb 17, 2012 01:21PM ● Published by Mike

by Rhonda Ross

As part of the ongoing effort to balance the budget, Carroll ISD recently conducted an online survey to inform and engage employees, parents and taxpayers in the budget balancing process. After asking open-ended questions, gathering, and analyzing data Carroll ISD made public the results of this latest survey in an attempt to answer the question: How would you solve an $8 million shortfall?

According to the survey results, 81% of the respondents say they are familiar or very familiar with the district’s current financial situation and the percentage jumps to 98% when somewhat familiar respondents are added. But, to better comprehend the enormous task facing our district’s Administrators and our School Board it’s important to have a general base of knowledge about school finance in Texas.

CISD Finance Basics

As part of being designated a Chapter 41 District by the State of Texas, Carroll ISD has sent over $140 million to Austin since 2001 with a $14 million average over the last eight years. According to the Texas Education Code, Chapter 41 makes provisions for certain school districts to share their local tax revenue with other school districts. As a “property wealthy” district Carroll ISD is required to share the wealth with other districts, a system often referred to as “Robin Hood.” A simplistic way to explain how districts are designated is to think in terms of the taxable value of property within the district’s borders divided by the number of students in a weighted average daily attendance.

Designation as a Chapter 41 District also means that Carroll ISD receives no transportation funding from the state of Texas; an annual line item in the budget that cost our district an additional $2.1 million in 2011-2012. A lack of transportation funding along with our Robin Hood payment equals an annual decrease to the CISD budget of over $16 million before the consideration of declines in our district’s funding due to declining enrollments – a factor not far removed from the overall economic condition and slow housing markets throughout the area.

A school finance fact detailed on CarrollBudget.Com explains that school districts operate basically with two major funds, the Maintenance and Operation fund (M&O) and the Interest and Sinking fund (I&S). The M&O budget covers the district’s daily operating expenses like salaries, supplies, utilities, and fuel. The I&S budget pays for capital improvements, new construction, and associated bond debt. In addition, I&S funds may not be used to pay daily operating expenses. The budget shortfall on the M&O side does not necessarily affect our 2009 Bond Program for new schools, technology and campus renovations, like those seen at new schools like Carroll Middle and Walnut Grove Elementary and expansions like the changes at Carroll Elementary and the new art wing at Carroll Senior High School.

When it comes to operating with a budget shortfall CISD is not alone, more than 60 percent of the State’s school districts are operating with a budget shortfall. This results in pulling funds from their Fund Balance Account (a type of reserve or savings account maintained by public schools) to cover the district’s daily expenses. Maintaining a healthy fund balance is necessary to manage normal cash flow and cover day-to-day expenses until tax revenues and funding are distributed by the state. The fund balance must also act as a “rainy day fund” to cover unforeseen expenses that may arise and are not accounted for in the annual budget.

CISD’s state funding is declining, the Texas Legislature passed a state budget that will result in cuts over the next two years totaling more than $8 million. Trustees balanced the 2011-2012 budget by making use of $3 million in one-time federal funds but that leaves the district facing another $5 million loss in 2012-2013. The participants in the recent online survey had varied responses regarding steps already undertaken by the Administration and the School to reduce the deficit and suggested changes for the future. The response remains steady, we cannot continue at the current pace, the system of funding public schools in Texas is deeply flawed and needs to be re-vamped.

Early Budget Cuts, Well-received, but still not enough
Ninety-four percent of the respondents generally agreed with the budget-cutting steps that have been taken by the Board and Administration so far. The operating budget has been reduced by $1.6 million in cuts to the central office budgets, including savings in campus travel, supplies and professional development budgets and the reduction of 16 teaching positions. According to District documents, all of the teacher cuts could be accommodated through resignations, retirements and reassignments.

Additional Budget Cut Options
One of the possibilities to reduce expenditures offered on the survey was to increase class sizes. Class sizes for the lower grades are mandated by the state at a 22:1 ratio but there is not a state mandate for grades 5-12. Currently CISD staffs grades 5-12 at an average of 26:1, depending on student course selections. An increase in the student to staff ratio by just one student (27:1) would result in a reduction of 13 teaching positions. Using an average staff cost for salary and benefits this option could save as much as $715,000 annually. The responses were divided in their opinions with a nearly 50/50 split on the option to increase class sizes.

The subject of Block Scheduling was addressed on the survey with CISD asking how strongly people felt about the idea of replacing block scheduling with a modified block schedule for grades 9-12. Carroll currently utilizes a block schedule system where students take four 90-minute classes one day and a different four classes the next day, alternating these A and B days. Students at the 9/10 levels can earn 8 credits per year and students at the 11/12 levels can earn 7 credits per year with a total of 30 credits available and 26 credits needed to graduate. Teachers teach 3 blocks per day and have one 90-minute block off for planning purposes.

If a Modified Block schedule were implemented certain classes would remain on an A/B rotation and some classes would meet every day. Students would take three 90-minute blocks on A days and three 90-minute blocks on B days and one 50-minute class every day. Under this scenario students in grades 9-12 have 2 less possible credits available (28) with 26 still being the necessary number of credits for graduation. A modified block schedule could potentially reduce the number of electives available and students involved in multiple activities may possibly need to attend summer school to accrue enough credits to graduate. Teachers would teach 7 of the 8 blocks leaving one 50-minute planning period per day, a loss of 40 minutes of planning per day.
The responses to this expenditure reduction option were varied; parents of CHS students responded with 64.9% answering they disagreed or strongly disagreed with a change to modified block scheduling, 32.3% agreed or strongly agreed and 2.9% stating they did not have enough information or experience in block scheduling. Parents of CSHS students weighed in with 60.6% saying they disagreed or strongly disagreed, 37.2% stating they agreed or strongly agreed, and 2.2% with the feeling that they did not have enough information to respond.

“Pay to Play” Scenario
Another hot button for parents is entertaining the option of reducing extracurricular programs and student travel. Part of the mission of CISD as stated on a survey question is “to provide a caring and creative learning environment that promotes excellence, fosters integrity and encourages each student to reach his or her academic, extracurricular, and social potential.” CISD also cited research showing a positive correlation between student participation in athletic teams, student clubs, and other extracurricular activities with increased personal motivation and academic achievement. The district shows that more than 80% of the students participate in one or more extracurricular activities but the fact remains these programs require funding for items like staff stipends, equipment, supplies, travel, and competitions. When asked whether or not they would agree with this reduction option survey respondents were quite vocal; seventy-four percent disagreed with any reduction in this area and only 25.5% were in favor of cuts in extracurricular programs, sending a strong message in this response.

On the flip side of this issue, CISD asked survey participants how they felt about instituting a one-time, annual $100 fee for every student who participates in a program of any kind. An overwhelming amount of respondents, 83.2%, were in favor of the “Pay to Play” scenario with a student fee for ALL students in grades 7-12 who participate in an activity. A mere 16.7% responded against this option. The high degree of people willing to pay an annual participation fee illustrates the importance attached to extracurricular programs at CISD. If 80% of the currently enrolled students paid the annual, one-time fee of $100, an estimated $600,000 in additional revenue could be realized.

“Pay to Ride”
During the 82nd Texas Legislative Session a bill was passed that would give CISD the ability to charge all bus riders a fee for transportation services. For several years now, CISD has charged a transportation fee for students living within a certain distance from the school they attend. Any student outside the radius is offered transportation with no fee. Keeping those facts in mind, CISD asked how strongly people felt about the complete elimination of student bus transportation (except for those students as required by law).
The majority of respondents (71%) were strongly in favor of retaining transportation service. However, an overwhelming 88.2% of the survey respondents were in agreement with implementation of a new bus fee for all students to act as a revenue enhancement. If bus transportation were eliminated it would result in an approximate savings of just over $2 million annually using the expense shown for transportation from the 2011-12 budget.

No New Taxes
Of course, there is always the possibility of raising taxes. Out of a possible 13 cents (per $100 of property valuation) increase allowable by law, a disproportionate 11 cents would still be subject to Robin Hood recapture resulting in CISD actually keeping less than half (44%) of the monies collected. A survey question was posed taking these facts into consideration asking respondents how they would feel if Carroll ISD called a tax ratification election (TRE) to raise the local tax rate the full 13 cents. Not surprisingly, more than 80% of the respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed making it clear they were not in favor of a tax increase when most of the revenue would not stay in Carroll.
Conversely, if CISD were to propose a TRE of 2 cents that would not be subject to recapture, (100% stays in district), respondents were solidly in favor of such a proposal.

The Bottom Line
Respondents were clear throughout the survey on their willingness to pay extra for certain activities and services to aid in reducing the budget shortfall. So much so, that when asked if they agreed or disagreed with a check-writing campaign initiated by community support groups to collect donations (which would not be subject to Robin Hood recapture) more than 91% would support such a campaign.
Since the inception of the Financial Integrity Rating System of Texas (FIRST), created by the Texas Education Agency to ensure that school districts are held accountable for the quality of their financial management, Carroll ISD has received the state’s top financial rating. We are fortunate to have dedicated Administrators and School Board who are committed to our children and our schools. Many people believe that the Robin Hood system of school finance is gone but the reality is that it is alive and well. A complete overhaul of the Texas public school financing system is long overdue. The $8 million budget shortfall facing Carroll ISD is a complex situation and by offering this bird’s eye view of the results we hope our readers have gathered new information to aid in making decisions down the road. 

The complete survey results have been made public online and include charts detailing responses on individual questions at www.southlakecarroll.edu, click on CarrollBudget.com. Information includes responses on cuts that have already been made and on what options are available to Carroll ISD for future cuts. 

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