Trustees with the Robstown Independent School District, faced with growing frustration from the district's employees over the lack of assistance for rising health insurance costs, approved a stipend for full- and part-time workers last week.
The school board's meeting room in the RISD Administration building was full of educators and administrators who had come to see if trustees would approve a $500 stipend proposed by Superintendent Alfonso Obregon. The move was aimed, he said, to provide some relief to the district's employees.
"We're still in a difficult situation, but some money has started coming into the district," Obregon said.
The superintendent said the district, in part, had about $50,000 leftover from an Education Jobs Grant it had received earlier this year. Obregon had previously said he would use that grant money to hire new staff members to help adddress low test scores at some campuses, but said there was enought left to help fund the stipend.
The district also received e-rate funding for the first time in two years, he said, about two weeks ago.
"We're at the crossroads of 'What should we do?'" Obregon said.
There was initial confusion over the wording of Obregon's recommendation, which extended the stipend to "permanent employees," which Board President Adolfo Lopez said he took to mean only full-time employees would receive the money. The district currently employs 536 full-time workers and 13 part-time, district officials said.
"Right off the back, I have a problem with this," Lopez said. "If we're going to be nice, we need to be nice across the board and not exclude anybody."
Lopez also expressed concern about the amount being proposed.
"This is just like a Band-Aid," he said. "That's all it is."
Obregon said the wording was not meant to exclude anybody and had been recommended to him by the district's legal counsel. He then amended his recommendation to say the stipend would be for all district employees.
Trustee Eva Orona questioned Obregon's change of heart, pointing out that Obregon has previously refused to support two opportunities to provide financial relief to district employees in the name of fiscal restraint. That included using $1.9 million, which had been given to teachers last year from the approved Tax Ratifiation Election, to balance this year's budget and opting to use the Education Jobs Grant for new hires instead of teacher incentives.
She also expressed concern that approving the stipend, which comes at a $300,000 cost to the district, would wind up hurting the district's employees in the future should layoffs be needed because of possible budget cuts.
"There's no guarantee that this won't have a residual effect on the district," Orona said.
"I'm not going to approve $500 for everybody knowing that there's going to be jobs cut somewhere along the line."
However, Trustee Ernest Gallegos lashed out at Orona for her statement, arguing that the district's employees needed the help and the district could afford to give them a little bit of assistance. He also criticized Orona for seemingly implying to teachers that if the stipend was approved, they could wind up unemployed.
"I think it's expected, man," Gallegos said. "I mean, if you lose your job, go find another one. I mean, why do we cry about it? Those are the consequences, but not because of this chunk we're giving today.
"Don't let them think that, just because of this, they're going to be without a job."
Trustees later approved the measure 5-0, with Orona abstaining from the vote.
In other school business, trustees received a presentation from Business Manager Jodi Schroedter about the district's e-rate funding.
The district received its first e-rate funds about three weeks ago, she said, in two years. In all, the RISD received $392,573 in funding. However, that was out of $2.8 million in requested funds. The bulk of that money stems from the construction of the new Lotspeich and San Pedro Elementary schools, Schroedter said.
The district has already requested $1,387,606 this fiscal year, most due from the new Hattie Martin/Salazar school under construction, but has not received any funding from the federal government for that amount, she said.
The e-rate funding is used by the district to offset technology infrastructure costs, but it also reimburses the district for construction cost associated with the new schools. The district must pay those costs up front and relies on the e-rate program to put that money back in its coffers.
If it does not get funding this year to offset the $1.4 million request, that money will come from the district's $6.2 million reserve fund balance, Schroedter said.