News Column

Obama's Jobs Bill Could Save Budget Cut Schools

Oct. 3, 2011

Neal Morton

President Barack Obama's proposed American Jobs Act could rain millions of dollars onto Hidalgo County's cash-strapped school districts, which have struggled to secure teacher jobs and afford school renovation projects.

But local educators held little hope that the bill could pass through the embattled Congress and provide any substantial help before the end of a highly partisan election season.

"Do I have a crystal ball?" said Marla Guerra, superintendent of the magnet South Texas Independent School District. "No, although I'm optimistic that hopefully something good would happen."

Obama's proposal could send Guerra's district more than $1.5 million in teacher stabilization funds and nearly $1.5 million more for school modernization, according to estimates from the Austin-based education law firm Moak, Casey and Associates.

"I'm realistic to say, 'Hey, if it comes our way, we could really use this funding,'" she said. "But if it doesn't, we would really tighten our belts some more."

The White House has not released exact details about how local districts could spend the $60 billion in education funds.

But Guerra said her tight budget could use breathing room to pay for what she said were much-needed improvements to many of her campuses, including the 30-year-old South Texas High School for Health Professionals, or Med High, in Mercedes.

In a conference call this week, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, Laredo, bluntly said his Republican counterparts had no interest in any legislation that spends new money.

But he said the president's plan could prove a boon to many of the schools and local economies in his district, which includes Sharyland, La Joya, Mission, Hidalgo, McAllen and Pharr-San Juan-Alamo.

"This will create jobs without a doubt," Cuellar said. "Imagine what that would mean to the McAllen area, the Hidalgo area and the type of ripple effects it would have by spending that type of money in school construction.

"This is an investment for our schools and our kids," he said, but also for "folks that do (construction) work, architects, contractors."

In the Edinburg district, Superintendent Rene Gutierrez said $35.9 million would go a long way toward renovating aging facilities such as the old Harwell Middle School.

That campus has required the school board to pull millions of dollars from its cash reserves to turn it into the district's fourth high school.

"Again, we don't know the details, but it's a possibility we could reclassify some money and put it back in our fund balance," Gutierrez said. "For a growing district like us -- we have enrollment over 1,000 kids in middle schools -- we need to address how to buy new campuses."

Like Cuellar, the superintendent expects that with an estimated $19.8 million, his district could get more teacher stabilization to relieve the local economy. He does not anticipate hiring new teachers soon but said the money could at least ensure more educators wouldn't join the unemployment lines.

"We would reclassify locally funded teaching positions so we could save more money for the future," Gutierrez said. "It may not add jobs right now, but it would help us keep our staff.

"We would not have to face the idea of laying anyone off."

Source: (c)2011 The Monitor (McAllen, Texas)

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