Message from Austin: There will be blood

By Brandon Evans | Published Thursday, February 17, 2011

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Winter chilled the Hill Country.

A rose garden planted near the north entrance of the Capitol stood spiny and dormant.

Evans BrandonBrown stems studded with thorns twisted and curved upward in a manicured rectangle of earth. Dead leaves, brittle and crisp as thin corn chips, adorned the bushes in the dull garden. Wind whispered through dark, crackling petals.

Inside, tucked away in a subterranean government boardroom, signs of the season issuing from muted voices fell on deaf ears and echoed into oblivion.

The state comptroller predicts a loss of at least $15 billion in state revenue for the biennium budget compared to the last. With more than 40 percent of the budget slated for education, it will suffer the largest bite.

Last week, the Senate Finance Committee poured over state funding items.

On Monday morning, it was standing room only in the committee chambers – the array of seated senators were slated to spend the day discussing where cuts would be made in higher education. Representatives from universities packed the aisles.

The committee was going over an almost $50 million loss in funding to a school for the deaf. Members of the school were praying for relief before the senators. A pair of sign language interpreters conveyed the discussion to the audience, but the ones unable to hear were seated on the senate panel.

Before it got to this point, administrators at school districts and colleges had already set signal fires blazing across phone lines, message boards and in pensive meetings with faculty and school boards.

The early draft of the budget, Senate Bill 1, calls for $5 billion per year to be cut from public education spending. Our state senator is in agreement with the bill. Like a budgetary surgeon, he said he wants to make the cuts as painless as possible. But it all seems like serious bloodletting to districts already stretched due to an ever-growing seam of federal and state mandates.

One local school superintendent (Eddie Bland, Bridgeport ISD) called the proposed cuts “catastrophic” with the current funding formula. It calculated as a 25-percent loss. Meanwhile, Slidell is facing a potential trip back in time. That district might be forced to combine grade levels into a single classroom if the proposed slashes stand.

This isn’t a slow, leach-like loss. Blood gushes from the wounds of the education budget, gashed by red pens like the needle tips of countless thorns raked across soft flesh.

This comes purely from a down economy. Our state budget is funded mostly through sales tax. Despite Gov. Rick Perry painting rosy portraits of the Texas economy, it’s reeling. Many of the new jobs created during this recession have been low-paying, low-skilled service industry jobs. There’s no way to depend on the powers that be.

If the cuts come, it’s going to be up to local taxpayers to bail districts out. Districts will be forced to cut countless jobs or hold rollback elections in an attempt to raise school property taxes. Politicians talk about the need to scale down standardized testing mandates and such programs that burden districts and take the creativity out of teaching, but nothing ever happens in Austin.

But green shards of leaves on the large live oaks surrounding the Capitol grounds show sparks of life. At least locally, sales tax numbers are up, but the rest of the state leans a different color, red as the roses now gone from the steps of the Capitol. And deaf ears can’t listen, much less act.

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