New San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD) Superintendent Pedro Martinez wants to give schools what they need. At the SAISD board meeting on Wednesday, the public got the chance to see just how he intends to do that.
The purpose of the meeting was to amended both the 2014-15 budget, and the proposed 2015-16 budget – both of which were unanimously approved. Most of the discussion focused on two sums in the 2015-16 budget to be used for the enhancement of instruction, curriculum, student services, and campus operations across the district.
First off, $4 million was set aside in the 2015-16 budget to be allocated at a later date with Martinez’s input and direction. Martinez plans to spend the summer working with district and campus teams to hear where they believe the budget needs to be increased. The only enhancement not on the table is staffing, which would diminish the $4 million before it could be spread across the district.
Instead Martinez is encouraging the district and campus leadership teams to think about resources and improvements for their existing staff. From those recommendations, he plans to increase the effectiveness and transparency in the budget process. The district and campus teams will expand their requests as the board plans the 2016-17 budget.
He wants to open the dialogue with district and campus leaders so that monies budgeted for “enhancements” really do exactly what they are supposed to do: enhance education for SAISD students.
“We’re going to be very aggressive,” Martinez said.
The public can get a glimpse of Martinez’s strategy at the next board meeting on July 20 when the district team will present their requests for enhancements. Martinez hopes this will inspire the campus teams to make bold requests for the maximum benefit of students.
Another sum raised discussion during SAISD CFO Larry Garza’s budget presentation was the projected $9 million surplus expected for the 2015-16 school year. With a considerable increase in property taxes across the county, the district expects to see a 10% revenue increase in the coming fiscal year.
The current budget placed the projected increase into the fund balance, which worried Trustee Steve Lecholop (D1). According to Lecholop, once funds are designated to the fund balance, they might as well be untouchable. While the district can legally draw on their fund balance, Lecholop claimed that to do so would incur a “black mark” in the public eye. It looks like the district is dipping into their rainy day fund, even if that isn’t the case.
The Texas Education Agency recommends a fund balance of “about two-and-one-half months of operating expenditures plus enough to cover anticipated cash flow deficits,” according to the Texas State Board of Education’s 2010 brief on fund balances. In SAISD this comes to roughly $72 million, which the district easily has on hand without the extra $9 million. Keeping the fund balance at minimum TEA recommendation also allows the district to maintain a AAA bond rating, as they have other securities in place as well.
Lecholop and Martinez discussed avenues that could free the anticipated surplus for use as it came in.
“Let’s develop a policy,” Martinez said.
Martinez suggested two alternatives for keeping the money accessible. He said they could set a policy for a minimum amount in the balance fund, stating that anything over that amount could go toward enhancements, basically earmarking the dollars as they come in. The other option is to add another line item specifically for the $9 million projected surplus. This would create a fund similar to the “special initiatives fund” created by the board in the past.
Lecholop favored a separate line item, but District 2 trustee James Howard disagreed. He argued for keeping the process simple, and using their prerogative as the board to draw from a surplus in the balance fund when needed.
“We can do that,” Howard said.
Howard argued that setting up another fund or line item would add layers of bureaucracy to the budget.
“Nothing about my proposal would add red tape to our Kafkaesque organization,” Lecholop said.
The placement of $9 million in a $400 million-plus budget is even more crucial considering the small percentage of the budget available for enhancements.
“What blew my mind when I first got onto the board was that 87% of the budget goes toward personnel,” Lecholop said after the meeting.
Staffing costs are essential, of course, but it demonstrates the importance of every penny available to the rest of the budget.
The remaining 13% is spread thinly across the many SAISD campuses needing facility updates, curriculum improvements, and other enhancements. An extra $9 million could be a vital help, and Lecholop is committed to making sure that it is available to be used where needed.
The issue did not need to be decided at the meeting, as the district finance committee could amend the budget to accommodate either suggestion after the budget was passed. Which it was.
Larry Garza was able to satisfy concerns of District 7 trustee Ed Garza and District 3 trustee Debra Guerrero concerning maintenance funding and competitive salaries, respectively.
Ed Garza wanted to make sure that campus maintenance teams had the resources they needed for graffiti abatement and basic lawn and facility maintenance with the increased rain throughout the summer. He raised concerns about the appearance of campuses and ineffective maintenance schedules.
Guerrero wanted to make sure that SAISD’s new teacher salaries would still be competitive now that other districts had approved wage increases as well. SAISD recently approved a $50,000 minimum starting salary for district teachers.
Larry Garza assured the board that the salaries would still compete. According to Garza, SAISD teacher salaries are the second highest among large, urban, peer districts in the San Antonio area. Northside ISD is currently the highest paying district, among that peer group.
*Featured/top image: From left: Trustee Arthur Valdez (D4), Board President Patti Radle (D5), and Superintendent Pedro Martinez listen to SAISD CFO Larry Garza’s presentation. Photo by Iris Dimmick.