Metropolis: Wednesday, July 25, 2002
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Losing Fat or Muscle?

Proposed school budget cuts ignore the year-old Rylander report.

By BETTY BRINK

“Where are your priorities?” Debby Stein asked the Fort Worth school board on July 16, her voice controlled, but her anger barely hidden. “This is no longer about children, it’s all about business.”

Stein, a two-time unsuccessful school-board candidate with kids in local schools, was one of dozens of angry parents, teachers, and students who filled the board room that evening protesting the cuts in district programs that Superintendent Tom Tocco has proposed in an effort to erase the red ink from the schools’ $446 million budget.

Facing a deficit of $17.1 million, Tocco is wielding his machete on popular programs right and left, from the Outdoor Learning Center to Imagination Celebration to Fine Arts to on-campus mentoring programs such as Umoja. He claims the severed programs will generate $9 million in savings and must be scrapped if employees are to get raises. “There are simply no other places to cut,” he said.

Stein thought otherwise. “What about the Rylander report?” she asked.

State Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander audited the district’s performance a year ago and sent back a hefty report listing more than 100 places where the district could cut administrative costs for a savings of $13,389,583. Such savings would have spared all of the threatened programs, Stein said in a later interview. “This is not rocket science.”

Why didn’t Tocco look first to the places Rylander identified to find cuts, Stein asked, before taking out such tried-and-true programs as the 30-year-old Outdoor Learning Center?

Tocco, one of the highest-paid superintendents in the state, replied that the district is in the process of responding to the comptroller’s report but admitted, “There’s no reflection of it in this budget.”

Betty Ressel, chief auditor in the comptroller’s office, said from her Austin office that she has met with district personnel once since the report came out last summer and “they’ve promised a progress report [on the audit’s recommendations] soon.” Ressel wasn’t aware of the budget cuts but said that the report clearly pointed to ways to cut costs without cutting good programs.

While the district is taking the report seriously, she said, “I think there probably was a way they could have responded more quickly.” The death of board president Gary Manny in March, she said, had a significant impact on what happened with the report.

Manny’s death resulted in a leadership vacuum, she said, and in fact, pointed up one of the serious weaknesses Ressel found in the district in 2001. It was run by two charismatic men, Tocco and Manny, “on the sheer force of their personalities” with no procedures in place to guarantee a smooth transition if one or either of them were suddenly gone. “Tocco relied heavily on Manny,” she said, “and when he died there was a crisis in leadership.”

That issue was at the “very heart” of the report, she said. School districts must have processes and procedures in place to sustain them fluidly over time, no matter who is at the helm, she said. “After all, no one lives forever.”

Trustee Juan Rangel said Stein’s suggestion that the Rylander report should have been the first place to look for budget cuts was never discussed by the board, “including myself, and it’s an excellent point and should be looked at.”

Rangel, however, isn’t optimistic that anything can be done to save programs like the Outdoor Learning Center, even though he called the alleged savings from that cut “smoke and mirrors.”

Tocco included the center’s entire $640,000 annual operating budget as money to be saved if the center is closed. But $450,000 of that is salaries, according to Rangel and the center’s director of eight years, Bob Reed. The district will continue to pay those salaries because the 18 staff members have contracts with the district that require they be transferred to other departments.

That makes the savings only $200,000, Rangel said, “not enough to justify cutting a program that is 30 years old and has such a stellar reputation.”

But Tocco is adamant about dismantling this program, Rangel said. “The losers will be the kids.” Tocco did not return Fort Worth Weekly’s calls seeking comment.

At the July board meeting, supporters of the 228-acre compound near Eagle Mountain Lake far outnumbered proponents of other programs. Through field trips and overnight campouts, the center incorporates the natural world into an outdoor learning experience for Fort Worth school children. Recently it’s been a summer haven for homeless kids from Fort Worth’s streets.

Betty Plyler, the 10-year manager of the OLC cafeteria, worries about those poor kids, she said, “who’ve never been in a canoe or walked in the woods.”

Reed and 18 others spoke passionately against closing the center; dozens more filled the packed boardroom. Tocco and most board members seemed unmoved, even bored, by the objectors.

“What disturbed me the most,” OLC cafeteria worker Ann Stokes said, “was the way Tocco kept looking down, looking around, and getting up and wandering around while people were speaking. He wasn’t listening. This was a done deal.”

And even though the center’s fate seems sealed, the Tarrant Regional Water District which owns the land and has a $1,200 a year, 50-year lease agreement with the district, has not been contacted by the administration, said Rick Carroll, TRWD senior land agent. “All we’ve heard are the rumors.” However, he said, because it’s a school district, he’s sure the agency would release it without penalty. He’s not so sure what will happen to the school-owned buildings, which include two dorms, a “large, elaborate” lodge, a caretaker’s house, barns, and a workshop.

Designed by local architect Albert Komatsu, the center opened in 1973, financed by a $100,000 challenge grant from Ross Perot, Sr. Since then, 170,000 students have passed through its gates, exposed to the Applied Learning philosophy, “learning academics while having fun,” said Reed, 54. An award-winning master teacher in the Fort Worth schools for 31 years, Reed said kids learn everything from how to assess the water quality in the Trinity River to what work was like on a farm in the 1870s. “I thought our program was safe.”

Tocco, however, wants quantifiable results from the district’s programs, Reed said. OLC “can’t be measured in test scores.”

One angry science teacher who asked to remain anonymous said that, “The OLC’s impact on test scores will be very ‘quantifiable’ in years to come” as the district begins testing students under the legislatively mandated Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills criteria for science and biology. In those subjects, TEKS requires that 40 percent of a student’s instructional time be spent conducting field and laboratory investigations. “Without OLC,” she said, “there is no comparable outdoor lab for our students to conduct field investigations. This is the ultimate in shortsightedness.”

Still Tocco said that night that the cuts would go forward. “And ... if you think this is bad, 2004-2005 is going to be much, much worse.”




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