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In Hard Times, Staffing at Schools Closely Watched

How school districts manage personnel costs will be increasingly monitored as debate over efficiency progresses — as will the ways they have coped with the loss of roughly 25,000 employees they shed before the 2011-12 school year.

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When Texas lawmakers took up the issue of how to make fewer dollars stretch further in public schools during the 2011 legislative session, “efficiency” was a commonly uttered word.

In several months, if the plaintiffs in one of the six current school finance lawsuits against the state get their way, a court will order a study to determine what that word means in the context of public education.

Even before then, the primary target of school officials and policy makers looking to cut spending, as they continue to grapple with rising enrollment and what may continue to be decreased state revenue, will have to be personnel costs. Salaries and benefits account for an average of 80 percent to 85 percent of a district’s expenses.

How districts manage the largest strain on their budgets will be increasingly monitored as the efficiency debate progresses — as will the ways they have coped with the loss of roughly 25,000 employees they shed before the 2011-12 school year, after more than $5 billion in state financing cuts.

“We want to see schools have the ability to put good teachers into the classrooms and move ineffective teachers out of the classroom, so at the end of the day the best education product is delivered,” said James Golsan, a fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank in Austin.

The trial, which will most likely combine all the lawsuits, is expected to begin in October. Lawmakers return to Austin in January.

No matter the results of the coming scrutiny by the courts and Legislature, the recent staffing decrease represents a significant shift in the pattern of Texas school districts’ employment. It was a decrease in employees of 3.8 percent from the previous year, but it occurred as 65,000 new students entered the public school system.

To put that in context, in order to keep up with the same staffing ratio that districts have maintained since 1995, 9,000 additional employees would have been needed, according to an analysis from the Texas Association of School Business Officials.

This year, the ratio rose to 7.8 students for every staff member, up from 7.4, said Tom Canby, the association’s director of research and technology, while in the last two decades it has typically held steady with much smaller shifts in either direction.

The ratio of teachers to nonteachers employed by districts, about 1 to 1, has also held true over that period. About 11,000 of the employees recently laid off were teachers, a 3.2 percent reduction from 2010. That fact is significant, said Ed Fuller, an education professor at Pennsylvania State University and former University of Texas at Austin researcher who has analyzed staffing data for every year since 1987. The only other time Texas has reduced the number of public teachers, he said, was in 2004, after a state budget shortfall of nearly $10 billion.

Teachers’ aides and professional development staff members, whose ranks dropped by about 8 percent compared with last year, held the positions that districts decided to cut most frequently. To understand how that affects student achievement may take several years, Fuller said, and even then it may be difficult to measure for the purposes of determining a district’s efficiency.

“We always use test scores as the outcome measure, and the services that these outside staff provide don’t necessarily show in test scores,” he said. “They show up in kids going to college, having better mental health, being less disruptive, very subtle outcomes.”

Other stories in our Beyond the Data series have looked at how many Texas students are dropping out of high school, whether they are prepared for college, and how much schools are spending per student.

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