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Students participate in classroom activities at Blanca E. Sanchez Elementary on Monday, Feb. 6, 2024, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

McALLEN — The district here just like other Texas public school districts have to make hard choices regarding the shortfall on their budgets, and a proposed idea regarding teacher’s planning periods and an additional class is causing district teachers to speak out.

Around the state, school districts are having to trim budgets through various ways such as department reductions, layoffs and the consolidation of schools.

In a budget workshop on May 29, the McAllen school board went over the different ways the district is addressing its budget deficit.

McAllen ISD Superintendent René Gutiérrez said funding for school districts has been getting more difficult since 2019 and most recently the state withholding funds for public schools due to Greg Abbott’s school voucher bill, resulted in the district pursuing different kinds of cost savings.

“It is not an easy decision to make and some sacrifices need to be made … we have to adapt to new changes coming up for next due to limited amounts of money that we get from the state,” Gutiérrez said.

One cost saving proposal that directly impacts around 40% of McAllen ISD middle school and high school teachers is a plan to cut the planning period for those teachers and have them teach an additional class.

The proposed recommendation stems from a Texas Association School Board study which evaluated the district by the number of students and the size of staff. The study found that the district is overstaffed by almost 300 positions.

Part of the study identified that the planning periods in middle and high schools are costly to the district.

Teachers currently have a conference, which is protected time and a planning period.

“It’s great while we can afford it, but now we’re in a time where we’re not getting additional money from the state of Texas … so now we need to be more conservative and more careful how we spend our money,” Gutiérrez said.

Under the proposal, middle and high school teachers eligible for a planning period must have courses that require a state of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, have an end-of-course exam and have four or more classes.

The sun sets on a row of school buses at Nikki Rowe High School on Friday, Jan. 22, 2021, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

According to the PowerPoint presented at the meeting, that accounts for close to 60% of secondary teachers in the district.

The remaining 40%, or close to 400 teachers, will not have a planning period and will have an additional class.

The proposal is estimated to save the district around $2.9 million.

An additional cost savings idea is the elimination and reduction of small classes with fewer than 15 students. The study found around 633 sections with less than 15 students and the recommendation to eliminate or reduce them can save the district around $5 million.

Jason Barrera, director of theater arts at McAllen High School, has been one of the teachers to speak out against the proposal at a couple of board meetings. Barrera said the formula and the estimated savings is inaccurate and doesn’t account for various flaws.

One flaw Barrera pointed out is that when comparing the planning period to other school districts, which the PowerPoint listed that most have no planning period, he said most of the school districts have a different schedule and use block periods.

This difference in schedule gives teachers at other school districts a longer conference period compared to McAllen ISD using a traditional eight-period schedule.

“That one line formula needs more vetting among many questionable factors,” he said. “So just trying to call that into question and at the very least give them a reason to pump the brakes and do some more comprehensive vetting.”

McAllen High School girls soccer coach and history teacher Patrick Arney said he is worried about the workload on teachers and the inability to give students a good education with the increase in classes per teacher without a planning period.

A hallway at McAllen Memorial High School is seen in this Feb. 10, 2022, file photo. (Delcia Lopez | [email protected])

Arney said the 15% increase in workload for the additional class is going to be hard to keep up with even with things such as grading simple worksheets.

“I think overall it’s going to kill teacher enthusiasm towards teaching,” Arney said. “I think we’re just going to be overloaded. This is 210 kids a day that teachers are going to have and frankly, I think that’s too many. I think anybody in education would agree with me … I get it, we’re short of money and we need to do something new, but at the expense of really hammering your employees?”

David Moore, an English teacher at McAllen Memorial High School, also shared the concern about the additional workload.

“Our district is performing at the top of our region in so many academic categories and I just think, how are teachers going to maintain the quality of teaching?” Moore said. “This past year I had between … 165 and 180 students. Next year I’m going to have over 200 students. How will I be able to provide quality instruction and as the year goes on, you’re just going to increasingly get tired.”

He said with the added workload, teachers that help with things such as letters of recommendation or help with college essays, will have a hard time managing classroom instruction alongside these volunteer activities.

“Most teachers will still do it,” Moore said. “I know I will. I’m not going to say no to a student that needs help, but it certainly is going to create a lot of resentment in me knowing that the district didn’t respect my time enough to give me a schedule that’s reasonable.”

Gutiérrez, the superintendent, made it known to the school board and to the public at meetings that the three main goals for next year’s budget is to sustain all academic and extracurricular programs for the students, avoid laying off employees and to provide better wages through raises.

“We want to support planning periods, we know how important they are but we cannot afford it,” he said. “That’s just the way it is for everybody throughout the state. Some districts are laying off employees and closing campuses … everybody’s trying to evaluate what they have and where they can do a reduction in their budgets to have a balanced budget so that they can continue operating for next year.”