The Wall Street Journal article, “Voters Weigh in on Layoff Issue,” reported that New York City voters overwhelmingly believe teacher layoffs should be based on job performance rather than seniority, according to a poll released Friday. The survey from the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute “showed that voters, by a margin of 78 percent to 16 percent, want the city to lay off teachers based on merit. Even in a household with a union member, 63 percent support merit-based layoffs.”
In AISD, our policy allows us to consider teacher performance before seniority in determining the positions to be eliminated as part of a reduction in force. In this difficult process of staff reductions, I continue to support the approach that my administration has taken, and I believe most Austinites, like New Yorkers, are supportive of our efforts to focus on teacher effectiveness and student outcomes.
That’s why I was disappointed and surprised by the headline of an editorial in yesterday’s Austin American-Statesman: “Chief Botches Incentive Plan.” The editorial said that I did not seek voluntary methods, such as incentives, to address the budget shortfall before proposing a Reduction in Force.
In my February 25 blog entry, I wrote about our budget and guiding principles for a reduction strategy that has been a year in the making. The strategy, which has been approved by the Board of Trustees, included the following administrative guiding principles for budget reductions:
- Not to make across-the-board cuts without considering the various funding sources used by campuses;
- Not to make unilateral decisions;
- Not to make allocation decisions that are not transparent;
- Not to jeopardize federal funding;
- Not to continue programming that is not aligned with the Strategic Plan.
Guided by those principles, we have been working closely and diligently with our school community to craft a process that puts student success first. We know one size does not fit all, and that's why we are working with individual campus principals to get it right. (That is also why different school districts adopt different paths forward, based on the needs of their communities. That’s what the “Independent” in our district’s name means — the Austin Independent School District.)
I have confidence that campus-based leadership, rather than a top-down approach to reduction in staffing, provides a much better approach that will support the quality education our students and their families deserve.
For more than a year, I have responded to inquiries from Trustees ranging from whether the district could buy early retirement credits through the Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS) to early exit incentives. However, the issue has never been scheduled for a Board discussion, primarily because the guidance that we have received, last year and this, has indicated that early retirement buyouts and exit incentives would be costly, subject to legal challenges, and not the best way to retain our best teachers.
As school districts throughout the state have grappled with significant budget reductions over the past two months, a variety of questions about reducing personnel costs have arisen. Last month, in response to these questions, the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) Director of Legal Services provided its member districts with guidance on offering exit incentives. TASB counseled that “even employees who take advantage of a voluntary severance package may be entitled to unemployment benefits, and these benefits will be paid over and above the amount of any severance. The district may NOT ask an employee to waive the right to unemployment benefits; to do so is a criminal offense.” Further, Texas law “prohibits districts from offering or providing financial or other incentives to retire from TRS.”
“Finally,” TASB pointed out, “be aware that, in practice, incentive payments tend to benefit the best employees, who can quickly find work elsewhere, the worst employees, who were likely to be fired anyway, and employees who were already planning to quit.”
Here’s the bottom line: with this guidance, my Administration concluded, and recommended to the Board, that the benefits of offering any incentive package did not outweigh the risks and, most importantly, was not the best use of taxpayer dollars.
Last October, the Board of Trustees approved a budget development calendar for Fiscal Year 2012 that clearly laid out the steps in the budget process, and appropriate adjustments to that calendar were scheduled with the Board’s Calendar Committee, including a Declaration of Financial Exigency and a Reduction in Force. The timing of these actions was decided in full collaboration with the Board.
Still, the Board of Trustees has the final authority over budget decisions, including whether or not to offer early-exit incentives. The Administration makes its budget recommendations to the Board, but Trustees have the authority to offer, adopt, and act on options as well. If Trustees wish to offer resignation incentives, they have always had the authority to do so.
Even as the budget development process has been made more challenging with ever-worsening projections of reductions in funding, particularly at the state level, we have stayed focused on the Strategic Plan, which puts into action the goals set forth by the Board. We have sought ways to become leaner and more efficient, while still doing a better job of supporting our schools and students. So, what is our organization going to look like and do after these reductions? What we have always done. We will continue to work as a District towards the following Strategic Plan goals:
- All students will perform at or above grade level;
- Achievement gaps among all student groups will be eliminated.
- All students will graduate ready for college, career and life.
- At a minimum, all schools will attain a status of either Recognized or Exemplary status under the state accountability system and meet Adequate Yearly Progress under the federal system.