HUTTO — School buses passed by 16-year-old Aubrey Sandifer as he walked home one recent afternoon in this rural town northeast of Austin.
What is a humdrum routine for millions of students around the country — riding to and from school on a yellow bus — has become a thing of the past for Aubrey. Faced with a budget shortfall, the Hutto Independent School District stopped providing bus service to students who live within a two-mile walk of a campus. The move saved the district $25,000.
Aubrey, a sophomore at Hutto High School, now spends 20 minutes walking one mile to school in the morning and another 20 minutes on the return trip in the afternoon.
“I’m like, ‘Wow, I’m not going to have a bus?’” he said. “I’ve walked home one time when it was raining. I didn’t like it at all. I was soaked.”
For Hutto and the 1,264 other public school districts in Texas, this has been the year of doing without. Texas lawmakers cut public education financing by roughly $5.4 billion to balance the state’s two-year budget during the last legislative session, with the cuts taking effect this school year and next.
The budget reductions that districts large and small have had to make have transformed school life in a host of ways — increasing class sizes, reducing services and supplies and thinning the ranks of teachers, custodians, librarians and others, school administrators said.
Like chief executives of struggling corporations, superintendents have been cutting back on everything from paper to nurses and have had to become increasingly creative about generating revenue. They are selling advertising space on the sides of buses and on district websites, scaling back summer school, charging parents if their children take part in athletics or cheerleading and adding periods in the school day so fewer teachers can accommodate more students.
In suburban Fort Worth, the Keller Independent School District started charging parents for bus service. The fee, which ranges this year from $185 to $355 for one student, is expected to bring in about $1 million, no small amount for a district that eliminated 100 positions, got rid of some of its sports teams and no longer has uniformed officers providing security after it canceled contracts with local police agencies.
One Central Texas district, Dripping Springs, reduced its custodial staff and has relied on teachers to pick up the slack. Janitors now visit the classrooms every other day, leaving teachers to clean and sweep their rooms on the off days. Off day or on, teachers also must collect their trash and set it in the hallway, part of custodial changes aimed at saving the district $149,000.
To cut $1.5 million, the Northwest district in the Fort Worth area also stopped busing students who live within a two-mile walk of their school. “It’s buses or teachers, and we’re choosing teachers,” the superintendent, Karen G. Rue, said. “That’s what it came down to, plain and simple.”
In Hutto, a district with 5,600 students and one high school, administrators cut $4 million from this school year’s budget, eliminating 68 positions and taking the unusual step of temporarily shutting one of its elementary schools. The school, Veterans’ Hill Elementary, will stay closed for two years to save the district $1 million annually, and its 500 students, including two of the superintendent’s children, are being sent to other schools. The only way to transfer the students was to take another unusual step: All fifth-graders were moved out of elementary schools and into middle schools.
The district must trim an additional $1.2 million for next school year, and proposals include charging for bus service, canceling instructional field trips and eliminating music and art teachers in elementary schools.
“It’s almost like slow death,” said superintendent Douglas Killian. “We’re being picked apart. It’s made a tremendous morale issue in the district. I’ve noticed that folks are a lot more on edge.”
Several lawmakers in the Republican-controlled Legislature have played down the impact of the $5.4 billion in cuts on schools statewide. In an interview in February with the Dallas Morning News, Gov. Rick Perry said he saw no need for a special legislative session to restore some of the education funding that was eliminated. “How that money’s spent is the bigger issue,” he told the newspaper.
But many public school advocates, parents and administrators said the reductions that districts had made — and were considering for the next school year — had reached an unprecedented level, even as enrollment and testing requirements have increased. Hundreds of districts have sued the state in four lawsuits, saying that the school finance system fails to adequately and equitably pay for public education in Texas.
From the previous school year to the current one, districts across Texas eliminated 25,286 positions through retirements, resignations and layoffs, including 10,717 teaching jobs, according to state data analyzed by Children at Risk, a nonprofit advocacy group in Houston. Texas public schools spend $8,908 per student, a decrease of $538 from the previous year and below the national average of $11,463, according to the National Education Association.
“I’ve been in education 42 years, and I’ve been a superintendent about 25 of those 42 years, and this is the worst that I’ve ever had to cut,” said John Folks, the superintendent of one of the districts suing the state, Northside in San Antonio, where officials eliminated 973 positions and made classes larger in a $61.4 million budget reduction. “We cut about 40 special education teachers. We cut about 28 athletic coaches. We froze salaries. School districts can’t take much more than this.”
At Hutto High School, Eric Soto, a world history teacher who is also the head softball coach and assistant volleyball coach, worries about the bottom line about as much as he worries about his classes and his games. He makes fewer photocopies, to save printing costs. He helped sell advertising space along the fence on the softball field, to bring in extra cash for the team. When teaching, he turns on only one of the room’s two light switches, to save on electricity.
Last year Soto taught four classes, but now he has five. He is working 12 to 20 more hours per week, both on the clock and off, though his athletic bonus has been cut by about $2,000 and district teachers have not received a raise in two years.
“I would say this year would be one of the years where I’m more fatigued,” Soto said. “However, at the same time, I’ve actually found myself become more creative as a teacher. It’s all about making adjustments, and it’s all about adapting to the cards that we’re dealt.”