Some Texas Teachers Left to Clean Up Budget Cut Mess

DRIPPING SPRINGS — Just as Judy Gardner answered the phone last Wednesday afternoon, a coach stuck his head into her empty classroom.

He wanted to know if she had swept her floor yet, because he had students offering to do it as community service.

Entering the new year, Gardner’s district can say something that fewer and fewer schools in Texas can — that no teachers have been laid off as a result of state budget cuts. But the Dripping Springs Independent School District has eliminated custodial positions, and that has left teachers there with new tasks once the school bell rings: sweeping classrooms and taking out the trash.

“It’s just one more thing at the end of a long day,” said Gardner, a high school Spanish teacher who has worked in the district for 17 years.

Texas school districts are struggling to absorb the $4 billion reduction in financing that lawmakers approved during the recent legislative session. Many have begun charging for extracurricular activities, considered raising local property taxes, and are dipping into their savings accounts to keep educators employed.

Dripping Springs ISD is doing all of that to cope with the approximately $5 million less it will get from the state over the next two years. Beginning this year, high school students will pay a $125 annual fee to participate in sports, cheerleading, and the spirit dance team. A tax ratification election is scheduled for Nov. 8. The school board approved using part of its savings to balance its budget.

But the district of about 4,500 students located 20 miles southwest of Austin was still forced to reduce 25 positions this year including librarians, specialists, custodians, and administrators, said Dale Whitaker, a spokeswoman. With fewer custodial staff members, she said, the district has needed teachers’ help to keep the classrooms clean.

Custodial staff will still clean the bathrooms daily, Whitaker said, and check on the rooms every other day to make sure that they have been properly cleaned. According to a district budget report, that will result in just under $450,000 in savings over the two years.

Most teachers in the district, said Gardner, who is the president of the Dripping Springs Education Association, “are willing to shoulder the burden” — especially since the district is doing its best to keep as many of them employed as possible.

But there have been hiccups in the implementation of the policy. Some of the equipment issued by the district is faulty, she said — the brooms “don’t sweep very well” and the “dust just goes under” the dustpans.

High school and middle school classrooms must be cleaned within 15 minutes of dismissal. That can cut into time teachers set aside to meet with students. According to a cleaning manual the district distributed to teachers, if the rooms are not swept “room numbers will be logged and reported to respective principals.”

“If a student comes in the middle of your sweeping, you either have to say. ‘No, I can’t help you,’” she said, or stop and risk that it will not get done in time.

Gardner said she was not sure of the penalty for a teacher having their name reported, but added that at the district’s middle school, the principal had taken to announcing the names of the teachers who did not clean their rooms the night before.

Jennifer Timm, a high school parent, sat on a district-wide budget committee that discussed how to cut costs. It’s “not an ideal situation,” she said.

“But again it’s very hard to say ‘no we don’t like this, but then what else has to be cut,’.” she said. “The honest reality is that the Legislature did not provide funding that is required to maintain current levels of educational services for our kids.”

For now, Dripping Springs High School appears to have found a tentative solution.

Since that afternoon, Gardner said groups of students have stopped by to help clean the rooms in exchange for community service hours.

“They’ve been doing it cheerfully and seem really glad to be helping us with this chore,” she said, adding, “I don’t know how long it will last, but right now it’s really cool.”

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