The Robstown Independent School District is on the verge of having its lowest reserve fund balance since 2003 and school officials are looking at drastic ways to lower an anticipated deficit.

Superintendent Roberto Garcia has recommended two different proposals to the school board over the past month, one of which involves the consolidation of the district's four elementary schools into two campuses. The move would save the school district nearly $1 million in electricity and employee salaries, Garcia said last week.

The other proposal, one that has already led to an open protest by faculty and community supporters alike, involves the termination of 48 non-professional positions within the school district. The move is designed to help the school district, which is facing a $3 million deficit if the positions aren't cut, save nearly $1.5 million in salaries and benefits, Garcia said.

Deficit is inevitable

The RISD will face a deficit, no matter if the 48 proposed positions are cut or not, Garcia said. The only question is how much the school district is willing to swallow - a $1.6 million or $3 million deficit.

Regardless of the figure, the deficit will be offset using the district's reserve fund balance, funds to be used to operate the school district in the event of catastrophic or emergency event. The state requires the school district to maintain a fund balance of $6.5 million, Garcia said.

"It's not a good position to be in, but nevertheless, it's a position we will be in," the superintendent said.

The 2008-09 school year will be the third time the district has entered into the school year with a deficit, according to a report issued by the school district's business office. It is also the third year running that the school district has had to dip into the reserve fund balance to offset a deficit.

In the 2006-07 school year, the district had a $1 million deficit that was offset by the use of the district's reserve fund balance, which, at that time, was at the highest level in the district's history at $10.8 million.

In the 2007-08 budget cycle, the school district had a $3.5 million deficit to contend with, with school officials opting to dig into the district's reserve funds again, dropping the fund balance below the state-recommended $6.5 million by about $200,000, Garcia said.

With the most recent proposal by the superintendent, which is calling for the elimination of positions for nearly 50 employees, such as custodial, cafeteria, secretarial and teaching assistant positions, school officials are hoping to minimize the impact of another deficit.

If the proposal to terminate the 48 positions is approved by the district's board of trustees, the reserve fund balance will be projected to be at its lowest level since 2003, school officials said, when the fund balance was $4.9 million.

If not, the fund balance will drop to a worrying level of $3.2 million, Garcia said, adding the state will start to take notice if that happens.

"I think the plan is very well thought out, but it needs the support of the board," the superintendent said. "The hard decisions are going to be made now or later, but they will have to be made."

Different factors to

blame

The school district has seen a constant decrease in its total enrollment since 1998, with the district losing 148 students this school year, Garcia said.

Because the state awards the RISD about $6,000 for each student enrolled in the school district, that equates to a loss in revenue of nearly $900,000.

But the RISD is not the only school district in western Nueces County struggling with declining student enrollment. The Tuloso-Midway and Calallen independent school districts both reported drops in student enrollment last school year, with the TMISD relying on nearly 640 transfer students annually to maintain its funding from the state, according to a February TMISD Transfer Student Update.

In addition, rising fuel, energy and food costs, as well as a decrease in state funding, have put the school district in its current situation, Garcia said.

The school district is projecting a $700,000 increase in electricity costs for the 2008-09 school year, as well as a $111,150 increase in food costs. The amount being spent on fuel is also projected to double from $105,000 to $262,450, school officials said.

Opposing view

Board member Roberto Tapia, who has stated that he would not support Garcia's proposal for consolidation, said he is also not in favor of the superintendent's proposal to terminate 48 non-professional positions in the school district.

Tapia, who publicly called for Garcia's resignation less than a week after his election in November, said at a press conference Friday that the superintendent was wrongfully blaming the district's financial situation on the lack of state funding and other reasons.

The press conference was held in response to an e-mail that was sent out by RISD Business Manager Jodi Schroeder informing teachers that they would not be receiving paychecks if the school board was unable to adopt a final 2008-09 budget, which it failed to do during a special meeting Aug. 30 after Garcia presented his proposal to do away with the 48 positions.

Tapia said Friday that the 48 jobs Garcia was attempting to have the school board terminate were being used as nothing more than bargaining chips, and could be kept, though he would not specify how, when asked.

"You're asking the wrong person," Tapia said. "(Garcia) needs to figure this out - that's what we pay him for."

When pressed, Tapia said he would support an increase in the district's tax rate to save the 48 jobs, though he did not say by how much.

The district has a proposed tax rate of $1.25 per $100 valuation, but a final tax rate will not be approved until a scheduled Monday meeting.

A letter sent Friday to Garcia and school board president Rosendo Espinoza by the Texas State Teachers Association said the district would be in "uncharted territory that could be rife with legal liability" if it failed to pay its employees on Sept. 15, as was originally scheduled.

TSTA Robstown Faculty Association President Madaline Caraway said Friday that she had been in contact with a lawyer and had been told that the school district could not withhold employees' paychecks.

"Most of us live paycheck to paycheck," Caraway said. "There are a lot of things contingent on us not getting paid."

But a letter sent to Garcia by the district's attorney, John Bell, warned Garcia that the school district could be in violation of state law prohibiting the use of public funds unless a budget has been formally approved by the board of trustees.

"The law is very clear that you are not authorized to expend any public funds, including the issuance of payroll checks, prior to the adoption of the budget for the year," Bell wrote.

Special meeting called

Board member Jerry Gonzalez, who was undecided on Garcia's proposal to terminate 48 positions Aug. 30, said he is now ready to support the superintendent's proposal after doing his own research into the matter.

"It's really a hard decision when you're laying off people from our community," Gonzalez said, adding that the only complaint he had was that he wished administrators from the different campuses had more input on the layoffs. "I just wish people would understand where we're coming from."

Gonzalez was also critical of Tapia's approach to his opposition of Garcia's proposal.

"I just think he's dividing the community more than it has been," Gonzalez said. "I will support (Garcia) on this."

For more update on this issue, please go to http://recordstar.com/articles/2008/09/11/slideshow/local04.txt.