DISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa Talks About The Very "Painful" Cuts to Come

Last night, WFAA reported that some 300 Dallas Independent School District employees will not return next year -- not because of the state's $25-billion shortfall, but because the $104 million in federal stimulus money that funded their positions beginning in 2009 has gone away. As DISD spokesman Jon Dahlander tells Unfair Park this afternoon: DISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa "was very clear from the outset that those positions were temporary, and, hopefully, when those individuals accepted those positions they were given that understanding by the person who hired them." Dahlander says he's checking with human resources to find out what kind of positions are being eliminated.

But the district always knew that money would dry up. What it didn't know till only last week, Hinojosa tells Unfair Park today, is that it could have to excise as much as $260 million from its budget for the 2011-'12 school year -- a "worst-case scenario," as the super puts it. He says he only discovered that staggering figure last week during a meeting in Austin with other state superintendents and the consultants they pay to keep tabs on the Legislature's ever-shifting numbers.

"I was blown over," says Hinojosa when asked for his reaction to the figure. At the time, he says, he had been preparing to cut closer to $130 million out of the district's budget.

After the jump, Hinojosa discusses publicly some of the conversations that have been taking place privately as 3700 Ross Ave. The board of trustees, he says, hasn't even been made fully aware of the cuts to come. That will not happen till the February 10 briefing session.

The super had but a few minutes to spare today, but he has agreed to talk again tomorrow. Feel free to raise any further questions in the comments, once you've read what he had to say today. Like I need to tell you.

The first thing Hinojosa says before we begin our conversation is, "I've seen better days, but oh, well." And then he begins explaining how that $260 million figure came up last week.

"This is the worst-case scenario," he says. "But we have some consultants in Austin, and they said, 'Education's never been hit before, and now we project it'll be [cut by] $5 billion. Then, lo and behold, the House meets, and that number of the worst-case scenario is doubled to $9.8 billion, and they looked three different scenarios and projected how much everyone would lose. And even they were surprised. And as I've been reading newspaper accounts around the state, from El Paso to Austin to Houston, every CFO has the same situation, because we rely on the same consultants."

He says he found out while in Austin last week, when he was down there for a conference with other superintendents and state Sen. Florence Shapiro.

"The consultants brought out a new spreadsheet and said, 'The budget just laid out double our liability," HInojosa says. "I was blown over. In my mind, I'd been preparing for the worst-case scenario under the original project that was closer to $100 million. We'd come up with a plan that was painful, but at least it was something we could handle. There were things I'd never considered reducing before that were now on the table. Now, there are no sacred cows."

What kind of things had he looked initially?

"Secondary school principals begged me never to touch common planning time," he says. "There are seven periods in secondary school. We have a planning period where all of our teachers plan together. That costs us $25 million a year, and we bought that with the four pennies we received from the tax increase several years ago. That's how teachers can plan together -- veterans can help younger teachers. But that's on the table now."

Dahlander, who's sitting in the super's office, chimes in: "That was put in place five years ago, so that's relatively new."

I tell the Hinojosa that yesterday, Dahlander said there was a chance they'd ask for shorter school years -- perhaps as few as 175 days. But, I ask, isn't that number set by the Legislature? The super says yes, and that lawmakers are indeed looking at introducing bills that would "allow us to have shortened years and furlough days." That way, he says, "we wouldn't have to cut as many positions. But that's necessary just to get to the numbers" that were originally projected.

But a tax hike, which Dahlander has also mentioned, isn't likely.

"Of course, we can't go for a tax hike during this budget process without voter authorization," he says. "What we did ask was, Is there was any way they vould give the local board any kind of discretion to ask for a few more pennies, and they said it wouldn't go anywhere."

Layoffs, Hinojosa says, are inevitable. He reminds: During the $64-million budget shortfall of 2008, that was "because we were overstaffed in campus personnel. But, yes, we would have to reduce our payroll significantly. At some point, reducing payroll will involve having less employees, absolutely. I've asked my CFO to give us a breakdown of what we spend. As in: If about 57 percent our of money goes to teachers, what's the X percent spent on principals and the X amount spent on counselors and the X amount on central office. I want to have that chart."

I tell him: Time after time, people want to know one thing -- will there be significant cuts in the DISD administration? He says yes: "Central office will have to be reduced." That, he says, will lead to a wholesale change in the way the district goes about the business of education.

"Within this decade, the entire education system will change," he says. "We can no longer afford this model. We cannot be so labor-intensive. There will be whole lot of pain. There are things that were sacred cows in the past, and this makes you deal with them in a very painful and public way. You can say, 'ain't it awful' all day long, but whining gets you nowhere.

"I remember going to one superintendents meeting two months ago, and for the first three hours, everyone's whining, and finally I got up and said something, and the new Irving superintendent said, 'Let's look at solutions. We can't waste four hours complaining. I am an an advocate for public education, and I will do everything we can, but in the end we'll have school in August."

But the process is only beginning; the board, he says, still hasn't been fully briefed on discussions taking place within the confines of 3700 Ross. He says he's been meeting with trustees individually, but the bloodshed will become quite evident at the February 10 briefing.

"As I tell people, I have this acronym I use: DAGA," the super says. "It's: a little denial, followed by anger, then grief, then acceptance. I'm in acceptance mode and solution mode. I've only told them half the bad news, and, sure, they see it in the media, and I sent out that note last week, but the first time they hear everything, there will be denial, then anger. February will not be very productive. March, maybe more, but we have to have a budget by June."

As our time grows short, we discuss the growing anger among teachers, parents and public education advocates who insist there's so much waste in the district -- that much can be lopped off the top in order to streamline what's become a bulky operation. Will he listen to those who would suggest profoundly deep cuts at the top?

"I will listen to anybody," he says. "When you get to this level, I'll have to make the decisions, but I will talk to anybody who thnks they have something to share. But nobody knows the district like we know it. They don't understrand our politics. Things they can do in the suburbs we can't do, and in the suburbs, their worldview is narrow. Same with the principals, to some extent. We're the only ones, those of us on the chief level, who have the whole district in mind. And we'll put in the best plan we can."

Tomorrow, maybe, Part II?

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky