Small Texas schools bracing for education cuts

Liliana Castillo

With a $27 billion shortfall expected in Texas’ budget for the next two years, educators in the Lone Star State are just waiting on the final word on how deep the cuts will be.

Gene Sheets, Muleshoe Independent School District superintendent and president of the Texas Association of Rural Schools, said educators are hearing that a cut between 8 and 10 percent is headed to Texas schools.

That means about a $9.6 billion dollar reduction to public education from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.

Sheets said that translates to serious trouble for all schools, especially small rural schools such as those in west Texas near the New Mexico border.

Farwell, Bovina, Friona and Muleshoe ISD’s can only hope cuts are less than expected.

Sheets said some larger districts may not have such a hard time because they have larger amounts of money in a savings account for “what if” situations.

“Your small rural schools don’t have as much of that,” he said.

Sheet said most district’s budgets are 80 percent salaries.

“Small rural schools may have to lay off some employees or not hire when a position is open,” he said.

However, a small school may have more difficulty making staff cuts.

“In a small school, you may have one third grade classroom. You have to have a third grade teacher, there’s no cutting that can be done there,” Sheets said. “For a larger district, we may have seven third grade teachers. I can consolidate a little and maybe have one less third grade teacher. You can’t do that if there’s only one third grade teacher.”

Sheets said budget cuts may affect small rural schools in a more dramatic way than larger schools.

“There’s not a lot of room to cut,” he said. “Your superintendent is the principal and the principal is a teacher in a small district. There’s not a lot of extra folks.”

Sheets said he is wary of budget cuts forcing small schools to consolidate.

“That means a negative economic impact on a lot of little communities,” Sheets said. “The school is the center of smaller communities, the lifeblood of the community. Communities rarely survive when a school is taken away.”

Small schools haven’t escaped the notice of Texas legislators. In some cases, they’ve become a target.

Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston) has introduced a bill to cut a small school adjustment fund by 20 percent.

The small school adjustment helps small schools pay for administrative costs usually covered in larger districts by the amount of state funding brought in by the number of students.

“If this bill were to pass, it would be devastating to small rural schools in Texas,” Sheets said.

Sheets said Muleshoe ISD is in a good position to weather the budget cuts because the district saw the cuts coming two years ago. He said the state lowered property taxes in 2006 with a plan to make up the income in other taxes but it didn’t work that way.

“There’s been a shortfall for the last two or three years. It’s building. This is a train wreck coming,” he said.

Sheets said the district didn’t replace six teachers last year. Budget reductions have also happened by cutting supply and travel budgets.

“For most schools, they can’t cut enough supplies to make up the difference,” Sheets said. “We’re going to have to talk about personnel. We will look at every position as it becomes vacant but because of what we have already done, I think we can weather the storm.”

Sheets said cuts to Muleshoe could range from $1.6 million and $250,000.

“That creates a dilemma for next year. We’re mandated to give teacher raises. There’s inflation and gas has gone up quite a bit,” he said.

Sheet said the state is looking at the possibility of not giving teacher raises in 2011.

“I sure hope that doesn’t happen. Teachers are our most valuable resource,” he said.

Sheets said the district plans to keep cuts away from students as much as possible.

“We’re looking at administration, non-teaching staff. It’s hard not to affect teachers with cuts this deep but we will try not to do that,” he said.