A study in rising costs; Irving ISD illustrates reasons for school finance overhaul

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Alma Jimenez’s prospects would dim in a crowded classroom.

The teachers love this bright, hard-working 11-year-old. But Alma didn’t know a word of English when her family came to America two years ago.

Twenty years ago, she might have been thrown into a 35-student class and expected to fend for herself.

But today, at Irving’s de Zavala Middle School, she’s learning social studies in a class of four.

“It’s wonderful,” said David Seright, her English as a second language world cultures teacher. “I can go over everyone’s mistakes with them individually. I can read to them individually. I can develop a rapport with them individually. It makes a great big difference.”

School districts say the $30 billion they spend each year isn’t enough. Why have their needs gone up so much?

As with any financial question, the answers are complicated.

But part of the answer is students such as Alma. Texas schools are expected to deal with a more diverse set of students than ever before. More students who can’t speak English. More students who need special education. More students who show up to school not ready to learn. And Texans demand better results than ever before.

“Back in the old days, we had a few kids with special needs,” said Jack Singley, Irving’s superintendent. “Now, we have a lot more.”

Irving ISD is an appropriate case study that helps explain why lawmakers, now a week into a special session on school finance, are under so much pressure.

The cost of educating Texas children has outstripped the capacity of a system heavily reliant on the taxing of those who own property. Nearly half of districts tax at the maximum allowed under state law for operating expenses – $1.50 for each $100 of assessed property value, a limit that has stood since the 1950s.

While it is one of the state’s largest districts, Irving is in many ways average. Its test scores are usually within a few points of the state mean. Its boundaries hold both urban grit and suburban calm. And, like Texas as a whole, its student body has shifted over the last two decades from middle class and white to mostly poor and minority.

Irving is also like many Texas school districts in one important respect: It’s out of money.

“Our capacity has run out,” Mr. Singley said. “We have no control over our revenues. All you can control is your expenditures. So you cut.”

Irving’s property tax rate for day-to-day operations is $1.50. Add in 31.5 cents to pay for bond issues and facilities, and an Irving taxpayer pays a tax rate just short of $1.82.

Twenty years ago, that taxpayer paid 68.9 cents.

Over that span, per-pupil spending in Irving, adjusted for inflation, has increased from $4,818 to $5,625.

Where does all that extra money go?

*Most of it goes to the classroom.

On a per-pupil basis, Irving spends less money on the services of employees such as janitors, nurses, guidance counselors and central office administrators than it did in 1983-84. As finances have tightened, expenses distant from teaching and learning have gotten the most scrutiny and faced the biggest cuts. In contrast, spending on classroom instruction has jumped more than 35 percent since 1984, even after adjusting for inflation.

“The classroom teacher is where the action is,” Mr. Singley said. “All the rest of us, we’re just support staff for the classroom teacher.”

*Lots of it goes toward salaries.

In 1984, Irving had one teacher for every 20 students. Last year, it had a teacher for every 14. And those teachers are substantially better paid now than they used to be. Twenty years ago, a rookie Irving teacher made about $16,200 a year – about $29,900 in 2004 dollars. This year, a starting salary was $36,350.

Add in the rising cost of employee benefits – most notably health insurance – and you end up with a school budget made up almost entirely of payroll costs.

In 1984, $4 out of every $5 spent in Irving schools went to salaries and benefits. Today, it’s $9 out of every $10.

That means cutting costs is almost impossible without lowering salaries, reducing benefits, or laying off employees – all unattractive options.

*More goes toward special education.

Twenty years ago, special-ed students were typically cordoned off into separate classes. Little was expected of them academically. Today, thinking about special ed has evolved. Many such students “mainstreamed” into regular classrooms, and school ratings are determined in part by how well they fare on state standardized tests.

The result has been significant increases in special-education spending.

In 1985-86, a typical American school spent $6,335 on each of its special-education students, according to a study funded by the U.S. Department of Education. By 1999-2000, the cost was $12,474.

To see how large special ed looms in Irving’s budget, consider last year’s budget cutbacks. Shortfalls forced Irving to eliminate 6.3 percent of all regular teaching jobs in the district. But only 0.4 percent of special-ed jobs were eliminated.

*Much goes to meet higher academic expectations.

When many of today’s lawmakers were in school, dropping out wasn’t unusual.

“People like to talk about the good old days,” said Bill McAlister, principal of de Zavala Middle School. “Well, in the good old days, half of your kids quit school and could get a job and make a living and have a family. You could get a job working with your hands.

“That world has died and gone. We all have increased expectations.”

Those demands are set in state law through standards-based reforms implemented since the mid-1980s. Schools are now expected to generate strong academic performances for all their students – Anglo, black, Hispanic, rich and poor.

“My teachers are just working their tails off before school, after school, on Saturdays, to help these kids in a world where the level of expectation goes way beyond 1984,” Mr. McAlister said.

To meet expectations for students such as Alma, schools have devoted substantial resources.

The size of her social studies class – just four students – is a bit unusual. But Mr. Seright said most of his classes for non-English speakers average 10 to 12 students – substantially smaller, and more costly, than other classes.

While drawing the flag of Spain as part of an art project, Alma said she liked knowing that Mr. Seright would be available to help when she runs into trouble.

“I love my teachers,” she said. “They like to help me.”

In 1984, Mr. McAlister was principal at Irving’s Lamar Middle School.

“We had class counts of 30, 35 kids in a classroom in those days,” he said. “We could effectively do that because most of our kids were on grade level, not LEP limited English proficiency, not poor.”

In 1984, Irving was 14.5 percent minority, mostly middle class, and had a smattering of non-English speakers. Last year, it was two-thirds minority, almost 60 percent poor, and one-third LEP.

“If we took today’s population of kids and put them in those size classes and expected a teacher to teach successfully,” Mr. McAlister said, “it would not be a successful expectation.”

These factors add up to a situation Irving officials call untenable.

The state’s cap on property tax rates means the district can’t generate any more revenue locally. Cuts in the last few years have trimmed Irving’s nonacademic offerings to the bone. If the Legislature doesn’t find a way to raise more money, Mr. Singley said, the next round of cuts could be brutal.

“I don’t even want to talk about what the options are, but they will be things people will really complain about,” he said.

Mr. McAlister, an educator in Irving for 32 years, said he has never felt financial pressures like this.

“Back then, the budget wasn’t a big deal to us,” he said. “We felt like we had what was necessary to handle our kids and do what we had to do. Now you have to dig for money wherever you can get it, and there’s never enough.”