By Kim Hilsenbeck
Terse words and tension at the 11th hour at last Thursday’s Hays CISD school board meeting put the passage of the 2014-2015 budget in peril, at least momentarily. In the end, it passed 4-3, but not without a bit of late night drama.
Just before Thursday’s vote, three board members expressed their dissatisfaction with the budget. They and two other board members also said they were disappointed with the process and felt the administration wasn’t listening to what the board wanted.
Trustees Merideth Keller, Sandra Bryant and Willie Tenorio voted against the district’s proposed $130.8 million budget, with Keller and Bryant saying they could not accept that class size ratios proposed for grades 2-4 are higher than required by the state.
Keller has been leading the charge for meeting the state mandated 22:1 in K-4 since the 2013-2014 school year, saying the district needs to put its money in what it values, which should be lower class sizes and teacher raises.
“You put your money in what you value,” Keller said during Thursday’s discussion.
She also expressed concern that the board engaged in the same discussion with staff last year, hinting that things hadn’t changed all that much in the intervening year.
“This has been a long process,” Keller said of the budget cycle. “We had a big discussion about whether you wanted class sizes or raises. But this is the same conversation we had last year.”
The crux of the disagreement on the dais was prioritizing the funding of teacher raises and lower classroom size ratios against other expenses, such as hiring content coordinators. Reducing the deficit was also an administration priority, though some board members seemed comfortable with raising it to fund smaller class sizes.
Assistant Superintendent Carter Scherff said with the proposed budget he presented to the board Thursday, the deficit was $466,444, down from nearly a million within the last few years.
Hays CISD board trustees reminded administration staff that they went back and forth for months trying to raise salaries and reduce class ratios.
In the end, the budget only funds kindergarten through first at the state mandated ratio of 22:1. At campuses that receive Title I funding, however, the lower ratio is funded.
Bryant recently picked up Keller’s thread and lambasted the administration for large classroom sizes at the secondary level. She also had harsh words for Scherff and McKie on the budget procedure.
“When we asked for something to be put into the budget, we don’t want to have to ask to have something put back in the budget,” she said, adding, “I am disappointed in the budget and the outcome, even though we have a lower deficit.”
Tenorio also warned district staff that his vote on the budget would be no.
“I’m not going to vote for this,” he said prior to the vote.
His complaint appeared to be more about the overall budget process, though he specifically mentioned the hiring of a mariachi instructor for Lehman High School and Simon Middle School. Scherff removed a mariachi teacher position from the final budget figure presented to the board.
Tenorio questioned the administrative staff on what he said was being sold as a way to reduce class size that wasn’t going to accomplish that goal.
Board President Robert Limon said he was disappointed that the district can’t make a commitment to fund a line item that has 22:1 ratio in K-4, but was proud of the board for its efforts.
“I’m very happy with the work we did,” he said.
Limon told the Hays Free Press he received several communications from Hays CISD parents expressing their desire for smaller class sizes, including one from constituent Mike Wright, who has students at Elm Grove Elementary.
The email said, in part, “My wife and I would like to officially express our disagreement with your decision concerning this issue,” Wright wrote. “I guess specifically what we would like to see from the school board, is a budget that would support a ratio of at most 22:1.”
Vice President Holly Smith-Raymond attempted to be the voice of reason during the board meeting, even going so far as to issue an ominous warning about the consequences of not voting for a budget.
“I want the smallest class sizes that are financially responsible for the district. We need to be realistic because if we don’t approve the budget tonight, we can’t spend a penny after Aug. 31. I want y’all to think about. That’s doors locked, no buses running. And if that happens, I haven’t done my job as a board member.”
She conceded, however, that having larger class sizes in middle and high school classes is creating a disservice to secondary school students.
“We need to hold ourselves accountable when test scores come out,” Smith-Raymond said. “We asked [those teachers]to work miracles but we’re really asking a lot.”
New board trustee Teresa Tobias appeared to be moved by Smith-Raymond’s warning about shutting down the district. She initially seemed to lean toward voting no, which would have put the vote at 4-3 against the budget.
She ultimately voted yes, along with Smith-Raymond, Limon and Marty Kenetzky.
Hays CISD spokesperson Tim Savoy said in a follow-up email that he didn’t think Smith-Raymond’s prediction of a district shutdown was just a dramatic ploy to sway her fellow trustees on voting.
“If the Board did not pass a budget on the first vote, they would have likely had to stay until they could agree on a budget,” he wrote. “If they ultimately could not get four Board members to vote for a budget, then the district would not have been able to operate this week.”
He said there is no provision for emergency state funding until a budget passes. Savoy also said there was not enough time between Thursday’s meeting and the Aug. 31 deadline to call a special session.
“A special session would not have been a viable option because there is a 72-hour requirement to post a notice of a meeting and this would not constitute an emergency under the provisions of the Texas Open Meetings Act,” he said.