Carstarphen says demographic changes, lowered funding makes meeting higher state standards a challenge.
Austin school district Superintendent Meria Carstarphen on Monday swatted down arguments from a state lawyer that the district had ample financial wiggle room to deal with its share of the $5.4 billion budget cuts enacted by the Legislature last year.
During testimony in the ongoing school finance trial, Carstarphen said the district has been doing its best given the changing student demographics, including more students with limited English skills, at a time of increasing state academic standards.
But the $60 million loss in state funding over two years has exacerbated the challenges for the district, which is considered property-wealthy for school finance purposes even though more than 64 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged.
“We do not have the resources we need to be successful with all students,” said Carstarphen, who noted that the state passing standards and expectations are the same for all students.
State District Judge John Dietz, who is presiding over the trial, voiced the question on many people’s minds in the courtroom and in school districts across the state.
“I’m looking at where you’re supposed to be headed and I’m trying to figure out … seriously what are you going to do to try to be able to meet these standards?” Dietz asked after reviewing the district’s end-of-course exam results, which Carstarphen acknowledged were “alarming and scary.”
Assistant Attorney General Bill Deane questioned whether the budget cuts were as significant as Carstarphen portrayed.
A 5 percent cut “would still be a very small number, would it not?” Deane asked.
“I wouldn’t say that’s small,” said Carstarphen, who repeatedly challenged Deane’s characterizations of the district’s funding situation.
Deane also suggested that the district had plenty of money in its $242 million reserve fund to cover the state cuts. And the district has shown that it has other funding options, including federal dollars, grant money and remaining tax capacity.
Carstarphen disputed that contention, noting that the district needs much of the reserve fund for cash flow purposes and has also been saving that money to protect a teacher pay raise amid the uncertainty of the currentfunding situation.
Maxing out the tax rate, Carstarphen said, would raise less than half of the money lost to the state cuts.
She added that voters might be reluctant to approve such an increase since 45 percent of the revenue generated would be sent to the state under a share-the-wealth system called “recapture.” The system is more commonly known as “Robin Hood.”
As a property-wealthy school district, Austin this year will submit $135 million to the state under recapture, which amounts to about 12 percent of the state’s total recapture collection. That makes Austin the single largest contributor to the $1 billion pool of money that is supposed to be shared with poorer school districts across the state.
“Just because the city from the perspective of our property is considered wealthy, our school district is not,” Carstarphen said.
Over the past decade, Austin’s enrollment of economically disadvantaged students has risen to 64 percent in 2012, up by 14,000 since 2003. And 30 percent of the students are at some point uprooted from their home or campus during the school year, primarily due to families searching for affordable housing.
“They come with health care and medical needs. Basic needs simply sometimes don’t get met,” Carstarphen said, noting that the district provides additional, locally funded services to meet those needs.
The population of students with limited English skills has been the fastest growing group of students and now constitutes about 28 percent of the total.
But even as the student population has changed markedly over the past decade, the spending per student has remained relatively flat when adjusted for inflation.
Carstarphen will return to the stand Tuesday morning to finish up her testimony.
Monday marked the opening of the sixth week of the trial, which is expected to last into January.
School finance trial so far
About two-thirds of Texas school districts have sued the state claiming the Legislature has failed to uphold its constitutional obligation to public education.
Four different groups of school districts are making various arguments, including that the school finance system is inequitable and resources are inadequate to meet the state’s rising academic standard
The trial is in its sixth week of testimony and is expected to last into January.