House budget shocks and awes
Wed January 19, 2011 6:50 pm

If the purpose of the House budget bill was Shock-and-Awe, it achieved maximum success: House Democrats wasted no time identifying the many, many Doomsday scenarios that would result if state programs are cut to fit available revenue.

No room for grandma at the nursing home. No financial aid for worthy aspiring college students. No more grants for full-day pre-kindergarten.

All are dramatic, with obvious social implications. It’s nearly impossible to catalogue all of the lasting and seismic shifts that would reverberate through the state if this document became the real budget. At the press conference held by House Democrats, Reps. Scott Hochberg and Sylvester Turner highlighted one: how cuts to the Foundation School Program could accelerating the closure of neighborhood schools.

Neighborhood schools are the heart and soul of Texas communities. They are where neighbors actually meet and form life-long friendships. Schools offer a venue for people of all economic levels, racial backgrounds and political leanings to come together for a shared goal: their kids’ education. It’s where you meet your children’s friends and their parents.

People form deep, emotional attachments to their schools. It’s impossible to underestimate the visceral reaction that will occur across Texas when the PTA notices appear in the backpacks warning of a school closure. If the budget shortfall is Texas’ immoveable object, it’s about to meet the unstoppable force of parental wrath.

Says Hochberg:  “There is no thing more difficult, nothing that produces more parental, more community resistance, than closing schools.” And yet, efficiency studies point to campus size as the obvious way to save money.

“It costs more to run neighborhood schools,” Hochberg noted. If the state really does reduce state funding to local schools by 23 percent – as the initial proposal does – districts will be looking everywhere to save money, and school closures, Hochberg noted, “are a likely outcome.”

It’s happening already in multiple school districts – including Austin – where parents have turned out in droves to protest. According to Dominic Giarratani of the Texas Association of School Boards, “it’s an option that all large districts are going to have to look into” if the base bill is adopted. (Hochberg doesn’t limit the impact to large districts – he believes there will be pressure on rural districts to consolidate.)

Sylvester Turner says he met with Aldine school board members in December and was told their current fiscal situation, plus the uncertainty caused by the state’s budget shortfall, had prompted them to end magnet programs, increase class size and contemplate closing or consolidating schools. Officials at the Houston Independent School District told him they had identified 66 campuses for possible closure or consolidation for the same reason.

Some of the closings might be smart: if enrollment has plummeted in a neighborhood, the district may not be able to justify the expense of operating a campus. Still, closing schools will likely also increase class size, prompt teacher lay-offs and social upheaval. “It’s not going to be well-received by the parents or the students themselves,” said Turner.

But he added that voters in the Aldine district last spring rejected a bond proposal, demonstrating that state officials cannot depend on the willingness of local taxpayers to pick up the tab that the state declines to pay. “That is not a guarantee by any stretch of the imagination.”

He faults television commercials from the fall governor’s race that assured the electorate “that everything in Texas is fine. That’s the psyche.”

When the reality sets in that “no new taxes” means closed schools, laid-off teachers and no magnet programs, “it’s going to hit the fan,” Turner predicted.

Is it too early to start hyperventilating over a bill that is, by all accounts, a “starting point?”  A lot of people believe the legislative leadership hopes to build momentum – at the very least for tapping the Rainy Day Fund – by issuing a budget proposal that no one really wants to support.

Said Turner: “I don’t want to be guilty of hyperbole, but we have to be honest with taxpayers and let them decide. But let’s not lull them into the belief that everything is okay.”

If parents understand the impact on their local schools, will it change the political debate? Before I left the Capitol, I ran into former House Education chairman Paul Sadler, and asked him what would happen to the budget proposal. “In my experience?  It’s awfully hard to vote to cut funding to your schools.”

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