By Rebecca LaFlure
Killeen Daily Herald
Since being named interim superintendent for Killeen Independent School District in October, Dr. Robert Muller has been confronted with a range of challenges, the most significant being the district's forced budget cuts for fiscal year 2010.
Now, after being nominated as the district's lone finalist for superintendent Tuesday, Muller said he and the board of trustees will continue to assess KISD's top priorities, and determine where the district can afford to trim spending.
Muller will officially be named KISD's new superintendent after a required 21-day waiting period.
Proposed budget changes
For months, there has been speculation about which areas in the district will be most affected by next year's predicted enrollment decline and subsequent budget cuts.
Plans to build a fifth Killeen high school have stalled, Muller said Friday. District officials will re-examine construction of a new high school in about seven years.
Muller said his current focus is reducing staffing costs for 2010.
"I am committed to not firing teachers," Muller said. "We are just not hiring any new ones at this point."
In the past, KISD typically hired 60 to 65 new teachers midyear, according to Steve Cook, the district's executive director for personnel services. But that is no longer the case because of the district's current financial situation.
It was announced in December that KISD's budget will be slashed by $4.5 million to $5.5 million in 2010 due to enrollment numbers 900 to 1,200 students below projections for the 2008-09 school year.
Muller said he predicts a decline in enrollment for the next school year by about 1,600 students. The enrollment decrease is largely due to troop movements and a lack of area growth, he said. And with fewer students, that ultimately means fewer teachers.
"We're still in the process of looking at what the budget will look like," Muller said. "The budget will not be adopted until August, so there's still a long way to go until we finalize anything."
Payroll biggest expense
Muller pointed out that 82 percent of the current budget is payroll and a large portion of the other 18 percent consists of fixed costs such as utility bills. Therefore, discussing reductions in staff expenses is inevitable, he said.
Muller said, based on faculty feedback, staff salaries are an important driver in the school district so he proposes to raise teacher salaries by 1.56 percent next year, a $3.5 million investment.
However, the pay-for-performance program, a financial bonus system for KISD employees who meet district-set performance targets each year, will most likely be eliminated, he said. On average, KISD teachers each receive about $150 to $200 a year from this program.
Another way he proposes to cut spending is to slightly increase class sizes from the current 24:1 student-teacher ratio to 25:1.
This change alone could potentially save the district $3 million, Muller said.
"The staff said 25 to one tended to be less important to them than professional learning communities, which are very important for achievement in the school district," he said. "So we will increase class size just a little bit? And as we forecast less teachers, there are significant dollar signs attached to that."
Muller also plans to reduce travel, food costs and central office costs, he said.
KISD continues to face the possibility of returning the current full-day pre-kindergarten program to a half-day service due to changes in eligibility requirements for the pre-K expansion grant. The district is a longtime recipient of the grant. If KISD does not receive the additional funding, the district will likely be unable to afford a full-day program.
"We were contemplating that, but at this point we are currently submitting our application to the state," Muller said. "I don't think for next year it will be half day because if we're going to be half day, we should've already made that decision by now. But certainly we don't know the outcome of our application for the pre-K expansion grant just yet. We're still optimistic that we will receive funding."
There will be a series of public hearings at KISD board meetings to address next year's budget. Public comment is invited, he said.
Goals for KISD
As the district's lone finalist for superintendent, Muller began preparations to sustain the district's strengths, and improve on its weaknesses.
His five objectives are to achieve and maintain academic excellence, support teachers, ensure financial accountability, develop future leaders and actively respond to the community.
When asked about the district's public image and safety in schools, Muller said he considers those issues to be district strengths he would like to maintain.
He said his educational philosophy begins with the classroom as the center of the school district.
"Where we deliver our services through the community is through the classroom," Muller said. "When we make decisions, we should first ask: How does it impact the teacher and the classroom?"
Improving math, science scores
Muller said he would like to concentrate on literacy development and improving math and science test scores.
"Our scores in math and science are not as strong as we would like," he said.
KISD's Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills scores have consistently improved since 2003, with math and science being the district's weaker points.
According to the Texas Education Agency, 72 percent of KISD students met the standard for science in 2008, up by 32 percent since 2003.
Seventy-seven percent met the standard for math the same year, up by 23 percent, and 91 percent of students met the reading standard in 2008, up by 19 percent from 2003.
In an attempt to address this issue, Muller said he plans to talk with the board of trustees about creating a homework telephone hot line based out of the Dock Jackson Professional Learning Center.
"Students are tutored in math before and after school, but if you are at home or you're trying to study math, what do you do?" he said. "We're trying to set up a system where students, especially at the secondary level, would have an opportunity to be tutored at this homework center."
Muller also stressed enforcement of a clear and consistent curriculum.
"We need to let teachers know that this is what we need to teach, and when we need to teach it," he said. "We should encourage discussions about what is the best way to teach fractions and so on."
Another plan Muller is particularly excited about is the development of a high school career academy – a place where students could choose a pathway of study, similar to a major in college.
"This would not limit you, but would be a way to exploit your career interests," he said. "It'll be a place where students can engage in a rigorous curriculum that leads to industry level certification, and at the end of their high school career, they can go into the work force and have a high-paying job, or they can pursue a higher education."
Contact Rebecca LaFlure at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7475.