Posted: Jan 26, 2013 8:50 AM
Updated: Jan 26, 2013 8:51 AM
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) Historic state budget cuts wiped out 100 public school jobs in Odessa. Two years later, the school district made famous by "Friday Night Lights" is spending $100,000 on a publicity blitz, but not to blast the billions of dollars stripped from Texas classrooms.
That approach hasn't worked to get the funding back, anyway.
Since the Legislature convened this month for the first time since slashing $5.4 billion in school spending in 2011, majority Republicans have shown they're in no hurry and under no intense pressure to put that money back. Draft budget bills don't restore the funds despite record revenue projections, and Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams last week heaped fresh praise on schools he says are still performing well despite having less.
How much Texas funds education now hinges on lawsuits brought by nearly two-thirds of the state's 1,024 school districts. A judge in Austin says he will issue a ruling Feb. 4, and after an expected appeal to the Texas Supreme Court, lawmakers will be told whether the money put into classrooms is constitutionally sufficient.
Even if schools prevail, frustrated allies of cost-cutting Texas classrooms say blundering districts lost the public relations battle to win support.
"They've done an absolutely terrible job in making their case to the public," said lobbyist Tom Archer, president of the Our Values, Our Texas group that was among more than a dozen that testified to budget-writers in support of reversing the school cuts last week. "Even (school administrators) are telling me that."
Education leaders say they tried. And tried.
They point to empty campuses in suburban Austin where the district can't afford to open the doors. In San Antonio, the fourth-largest school district in Texas spent $261,000 implanting tracking chips in student IDs, an investment Northside officials say was made to boost attendance records and potentially wring another $1.7 million out of the state.
Two years ago teachers flocked to the Capitol in buses. A filibuster by Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis in the final hours of the 2011 legislative session stalled the cuts from passing and vaulted her into rumblings of gubernatorial run in 2014.
Two years after her stand on the Senate floor, Davis said schools have now given up on the Legislature. But she also acknowledged that a better P.R. offensive could have been mounted heading into this session.
"They're in a tough position," Davis said. "On the one hand, it's important that they communicate how devastating the cuts were to their mission. On the other hand, I think it's very hard if you're a school district to get a bullhorn out and tell your community that you're not able to provide a good education for their children. They're stuck."
Testifying for the first time before lawmakers last week, the state's new education chief didn't suggest districts were struggling. Williams, who was appointed by Gov. Rick Perry in October, bragged about new federal data showing Texas tied with five other states for the third-best high school graduation rates in the nation.
Williams sidestepped weighing in on funding levels, saying he is waiting on the courts. But he said following his appearance before the powerful Senate Finance Committee that administrators haven't pestered him about budget cuts.
"You know what's interesting? Most of my conversations have been about the accountability system, not about funding," Williams said. "Funding has been way down in terms of the conversations that school board members and superintendents have had with me."
Before the $5.4 billion in cuts went into effect, Texas ranked 41st in the nation in per-pupil spending, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau figures in 2010. The state's nonpartisan Legislative Budget Board says the budget drafts introduced by the House and Senate funds enrollment growth at 2011 levels.
In Odessa, a six-figure public relations deal signed by Ector County schools this month was years in the making and won't try spinning the ill-effects of budget cuts, district spokesman Mike Adkins said. Besides, classrooms in the oil-rich Permian Basin are in better shape than most.
With energy jobs abundant around Odessa, enrollment in the district grew by 2,000 new students this year. The district can afford hiring more teachers because of the increase in tax collections, said Adkins, who also said most of the nearly 100 positions lost after 2011 were jobs that had been unfilled.
When the Allen school district opened a $60 million high school football in suburban Dallas last fall, eyebrows were raised that, like in Odessa, schools are doing better than some suggest. The stadium was paid with local bond dollars and not state funds, but educators say that's the image districts are up against.
"We throw out these numbers, $5.4 billion, to the public. That's doesn't mean anything," said Josh Sanderson, a lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators. "It's just a number among other big numbers."
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