Cost of Texas budget cuts starting to take shape

“The Texas Legislature is wrestling with a predicted $27 billion (deficit) . . .,” wrote Mike Gross, Texas State Employees Union, CWA Local 6186 vice-president in the Austin American Statesman.  “Its solution, to take a budget that already puts us at the bottom among the states in investment in our own people and cut $30 billion out of it, will cost Texas much more than it saves.”

Some of the costs that Gross is talking about began to take shape recently as local school boards and one of Texas’ major public safety agencies announced layoffs that reduce the quality of public education and diminish public safety.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice on Wednesday announced that it will lay off 550 workers in its parole and correctional institutions divisions. Most of those facing layoffs will be support and administrative workers, but 155 of those being laid off work in Project Rio, a program that helps ex-offenders find jobs and stay out of prison. The layoffs effectively shut down Project Rio.

“The layoffs will have a big impact on public safety in Texas,” Gross said. “Fewer support staff  in the parole division will mean parole officers will spend more time doing paper work and less time monitoring parolees. Ending Project Rio just means that we’ll be seeing more ex-offenders committing crimes and ending up back in prison.”

According to the US Justice Department, studies show that “ex-offenders with jobs commit fewer crimes than ex-offenders without jobs, and Project Rio has been effective in helping ex-offenders find and keep jobs and avoid returning to prison.

In addition to diminished public safety, the budget cuts will also mean reduced education opportunities especially for working class students. For example, the superintendent of the Austin Independent School District (AISD) recently proposed a budget that eliminates more than 1,000 education jobs because the district anticipates that state funding for the school district will be substantially reduced.

About half of the proposed cuts are teacher positions, and many of the others, such as teaching assistants, have a direct impact on teaching. The layoffs will mean that class sizes will be larger next year, and larger class sizes will impair the quality of education for AISD students. AISD is an urban district of more than 84,000 students, 63 percent of whom receive free or reduced-price lunches.

Larger classes sizes will be especially hard on students who need extra help such as those who lack English proficiency, 29 percent of AISD’s students, and special education students, whose programs in working-class areas of the city have been especially hard hit by the budget cuts. 

In a letter to its members, Austin Education, the union representing 4,000 Austin teachers and education workers, told its members that despite the bad news about layoffs, the proposed budget is not a done deal yet and urged members to “keep fighting.”

“It is of the utmost importance that we direct much of our energy and resources to the legislature,” the letter said.  “That is where the real problem resides. If the district was dealing only with their budget shortfall of about $15 million dollars, they could remedy it without cutting jobs. However, the state has proposed draconian cuts that increase the district deficit to between $90-$113 million dollars. This is unprecedented and we must make the legislature aware that it is unacceptable.”

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