UNION GROVE — Superintendents and other officials from at least 18 area school districts were urged at a meeting here Tuesday to fight a proposed major cutback in state financial aid to Texas schools.
The gathering, hosted by Union Grove ISD Supt. Brian Gray in a school library, resulted from a potential multi-billion dollar reduction in state funding to schools because of the state’s budget shortfall.
The discussion ranged from tactics for opposing the potential cutbacks and criticism of the state legislature to negative public perceptions about schools.
Gray told the assemblage the meeting was called to “get some districts to bounce ideas” off each other. He urged the various schools’ officials to lobby state legislators, and said he would try to arrange a meeting between them and State Rep. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola).
(Gray told The Mirror on Wednesday he had arranged for several superintendents, including himself, to meet with Hughes in Austin at 2 p.m. Monday.)
He was among those Tuesday exhorting his fellow superintendents to protest the possible reductions in state aid.
“Write letters, e-mails, and call (state legislators) every single day,” he suggested, telling those present that they were doing their districts “a disservice” if they hadn’t gone to meet with their state representative nor written letters.
“Obviously, we’re going to get cut,” Gray said, but complained that school officials were doing “too much sitting by and accepting.”
Joe F. Smith, an administrative consultant with the website TexasISD.com for state school officials, said those in education had perhaps “become the path of least resistance” and maybe needed to consider changing that.
“My passion for kids is, I cut my kids after I’ve cut everything else, and they (legislators) don’t see it that way,” Smith contended. He urged the audience to “plan and communicate.”
Pittsburg ISD Supt. Judy Pollan said all superintendents in Hughes’s legislative district should meet with him.
“I just believe the ball game’s not over,” said Ms. Pollan, who encouraged her fellow superintendents to be “bombarding our legislators” with “strong encouragement to do the right thing.” She said her district is circulating petitions opposing the cutback and sending them daily.
“Only the citizens of Texas can change their (legislators’) mind,” said Ms. Pollan, who decried the possibility that a reduction in state aid would force schools to eliminate certain things.
“These are not inefficiencies (that will be abolished). These are things that will hurt our kids,” the Pittsburg superintendent argued.
“I don’t think some of these state reps fully understand the impact of this on us. . .They have really ripped us up,” Ms. Pollan added. “We don’t need to take this.”
Added Kilgore ISD Supt. Jody Clements, “Many times, they (legislators) vote (in favor of) business because business has the money to get them re-elected.”
Winona ISD Supt. Wiley Vonner accused legislators of wanting to “starve” small schools like his, forcing them to consolidate.
“What they really want is there not to be a Big Sandy, a Winona and a Hawkins in close proximity to each other,” Vonner said.
Another superintendent, Dr. Bruce Gearing of Marshall ISD, said the school officials needed to “generate a grassroots firestorm” against the cuts.
He said that when he talked with Rep. Hughes, the legislator did not realize that the largest school district he represented would have to eat $5 million and lose jobs.
“They do not have to cut the funding for Marshall ISD,” Dr. Gearing said.
As for how schools would cope with major cuts in state aid, those present discussed such steps as shortening administrators’ contracts from 12 months to 11, offering experienced teachers incentive pay to retire, reducing local sick days, absorbing positions by attrition, if possible; and waiting a year to buy school buses.
“I can reduce my budget, but I’m not calling it savings because it’s not,” said Gilmer ISD Supt. Rick Albritton. For example, he said, he could save six positions at his elementary school by going to a 25-1 pupil-teacher ratio, but he indicated he thought that was too many students per teacher.
Albritton, who is in his mid-50s, argued that a 25-1 ratio today isn’t what it was when he himself attended school. He predicted that if citizens learn what’s about to happen as a result of the cut in state aid, “they’re going to throw a fit.”
Harleton ISD Supt. Craig Coleman complained that school officials hear they must be “more efficient.” But the state guarantees him only $3.66 hourly to educate, feed and transport a child at his school, he said.
“How much more efficient can we get?” Coleman asked.
Said Gray, “I think we’re all under the gun in the public eye.” When legislators say schools must be more efficient, “Joe Q. Public does not understand these things,” the Union Grove superintendent said.
To support his point, Gray cited letters to the editor in an area newspaper. One criticized having public kindergarten and Gray said people don’t understand the importance of early education, so “I am doing my best to educate the taxpayers of Union Grove ISD.”
Another letter, he said, quoted a study as showing that the average coach’s salary is 50 percent higher than math teachers’.
“That’s absolutely false. There is no study that says that” or at least if there is, Gray said, he hadn’t seen it.
Clements said the media has three times as many negative stories about schools as positive.
“Everybody thinks we’re overstaffed, we’re overpaid, we’re not doing our jobs,” the Kilgore superintendent said. Yet, he said, oil company heads earn annual salaries $100,000 to $200,000 more than his while dealing with fewer employees than he does.
White Oak ISD Supt. Mike Gilbert said one state legislator had stated that for every teacher, there was another school employee who didn’t teach. But he said those employees are such personnel as bus drivers and cafeteria workers.
Addressing the matter of administrative costs, Gray said the legislature has mandated that schools perform tasks that required an increase in administrative staff.
Noting only seven percent of Union Grove ISD’s budget is for such costs, he said, “If they want to reduce those mandates and all that stuff we have to do, I’ll get that number down.”
When Gray asked for ideas for school to increase their revenues, one man in the audience joked, “I’m German Catholic. I’m for beer at football games.”
Superintendents of all seven schools centrally located in Upshur County attended the gathering. Besides Gray and Albritton, they included Ore City Supt. Lynn Heflin; Harmony Supt. Jed Whitaker; Union Hill Supt. Sharon Richardson; New Diana Supt. Joyce Sloan; and Big Sandy Supt. Scott Beene.