Battles Potentially on the Horizon as Dallas ISD Approves 2017-18 Budget

Without too much fuss, Dallas ISD trustees approved a budget during their final board meeting of the school year. But the vote came with one eye pointed toward an upcoming fight over a potential tax hike.Late Thursday, trustees unanimously approved a balanced budget that included $1.934 billion in spending for 2017-18, slightly less than last year’s total.The district’s general operating budget — mainly used to pay for day-to-day expenses like payroll, transportation and maintenance — dropped by $53.5 million, to $1.419 billion. That 3.6 percent reduction looks steep, but last year’s general operating budget included the one-time, $46.5 million purchase of the district’s new headquarters.DISD is projected to have fewer students next year and is adjusting its expenses accordingly. It’s the district’s second straight enrollment drop, and that affects revenue, as DISD gets less from the state’s byzantine funding formula.State revenues are projected to decline by almost $97 million, with Austin chipping in less and less for the property-wealthy district. The continued rise in Dallas property values won’t cover the difference, expected to bring in $87 million in additional local tax revenue for the upcoming year.Before the vote, almost a dozen community members pointed to the reduction in the general operating budget as rationale for trustees to call for a tax ratification election.Over the past few months, a collection of community and education advocacy groups — the Strong Schools Strong Dallas coalition — has made a concerted push to persuade trustees to approve a 13-cent tax ratification election for this fall. In recent months, DISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa has suggested a more conservative 2-cent tax swap, which wouldn’t raise taxes, but would give the district more operating funds by pulling revenue currently used to pay off its debt.Several of the coalition’s supporters spoke during the public forum portion of Thursday’s meeting, including former board president Eric Cowan. A 13-cent tax increase could give DISD an additional $119.5 million.While Hinojosa disputed that the $53.5 million reduction was “a shortfall,” he acknowledged that the approved budget wasn’t painless.In order for money to be “baked into the budget” for the district’s strategic initiatives, such as early-college high schools and teacher merit pay, Hinojosa and his staff made almost $60 million in cuts over the nearly yearlong budget process.The district reduced 180 teaching positions from a total force of over 10,000 teachers. Chief of school leadership Stephanie Elizalde said the teacher cuts were largely achieved through attrition and adjusting student-to-teacher ratios at the elementary level. DISD also reduced staffing formulas for support staff, cutting 31 librarian positions and a similar number of nurses and nurse assistants.The district also trimmed $27 million in central office expenses by not filling vacancies, slashing non-personnel costs, and eliminating one entire department — the Office of Project Management, a small group that helped coordinate fledgling initiatives.All of those cuts — and some bond money — allowed Hinojosa to boost his priorities by $48 million. The new budget includes $17 million for retention raises in the district’s teacher merit pay system, a total of $16.9 million for expansion of collegiate academies, and smaller increases for early childhood learning, DISD’s campus turnaround program and its specialty schools.But for those programs to grow significantly in coming years, DISD will likely need more local funding or more cuts.Trustee Joyce Foreman said she believed that the district could cut more in general administration costs, an idea that both board president Dan Micciche and trustee Dustin Marshall supported researching.Trustee Lew Blackburn pressed Hinojosa on whether he thought the budget addressed “all of the priorities of the district.”“Yes, of the funds we could afford; certainly, we included the major four district strategic initiatives and many others as well,” Hinojosa responded.“Are there any of the priorities that we were not able to fund in this budget?” Blackburn asked.“Yes — and there are some new things,” Hinojosa said. "But many of those were expansions of the priorities, if the board allowed us to proceed with a tax ratification election. We want to expand our choice opportunities. We want to address our dyslexia issue. We want to provide a salary increase to all of our employees, not just our teachers.”“Most” of those items could be addressed in some way by the tax swap, Hinojosa said.In early August, trustees are expected to make a decision on which — if any — tax option will be presented to voters. Last year, the board fell one vote shy of the required six-vote super-majority to call for a 13-cent tax hike. Blackburn, then the board president, initially supported the election before changing his position.  Continue reading...

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