District backs off proposal to cut teacher planning period next year


Heba Dalu

U.S. History and AustinCorps teacher Natalie Fontenot uses her conference period to create interview questions for next year’s prospective interns and prepare for her 4th period class.

Mario Sanchez and Heba Dalu

Planning, grading, and meeting. These are some of the most time-consuming tasks that teachers handle while they are not leading instruction during a class period.

For years, Austin ISD has given all secondary teachers two conference periods so they have time to take care of these essential tasks during the school day. However, a new proposal from district administration would eliminate one of these required off periods for all secondary teachers, forcing teachers to teach seven out of the eight class periods in students’ block schedules.

Ken Zarifis, president of Education Austin, estimates the proposal would increase teachers’ workload by about 20% and lead to job cuts. Instead, Education Austin representatives and teachers are asking district leaders to address budget constraints through other avenues, such as relying on federal COVID-19 relief funds or district reserves and selling district real estate.

“The last place the district should go to balance its budget is in the classroom,” Zarifis said at a news conference on Jan. 18.

Akins teachers have complained about the new scheduling proposal and some have even gone as far as to say they will leave the district if it is implemented. 

Social studies teacher Natalie Fontenot said she thinks it is a terrible proposal.

“I’m overwhelmed as it is. I love teaching, but every single year it gets harder,” she wrote in a response to an Eagle’s Eye survey. “We’re asked to teach 30 minutes longer (FIT/ Advisory), teach an extra class (for pay), stay after school, work in the summer, and complete professional development. I can’t teach more than one prep if I have a planning period taken away.” 

Akins teachers say their current workload overwhelms them, leaving them with little time to tend to their families and their personal needs. AVID teacher Teresa Grumbles said she teaches about 180 students in addition to being the AVID Site Coordinator and AVID/SEL Department chair. If she has to teach an additional class next year, she would teach around 210-220 students. 

“Teaching that many students and losing a conference period are not sustainable for my current job duties,” Grumbles wrote in a survey response. “I am already stressed out just thinking about it! I don’t know if I can handle it on top of my other responsibilities and being the mom of two high school boys who are involved in so many activities, like football, track, wrestling, and choir.” 

Senior Isaias Balderas said that he doesn’t think that the new proposal is fair to teachers because “they already do so much outside of school.”

Junior Viviene Garza said she’s worried about the quality of education she will receive next year. 

“Teachers will be exhausted. It’s like the saying ‘quality over quantity.’ I understand the superintendent wants to make up for our losses, but it is us students who will be affected, especially those of us who take challenging classes,” she said

At a recent school board meeting on Feb. 10, Austin ISD central office administrators announced that they have decided to back off of this proposal, no longer forcing teachers to work seven out of the eight class periods in students’ block schedule next year. 

“In listening to our community, we think the one area that we heard loud and clear that’s not negotiable is the six out of eight,” Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde said. 

Before this announcement, high school teachers across the district expressed frustration and outrage about the proposal, which they said would increase their workload without additional compensation and make it harder for them to do their non-teaching required tasks.

Math Department Chair Christopher Aguilar said that he was pleased with the district pivoting away from the proposal. 

“Personally, I was very happy and I know that I make good use of my time here. This is when I make my copies and plan and get all my stuff ready to go for my classes,” he said. “So the thought of losing one of my planning periods was a little concerning. I was very happy with their decision.”

However, with declining state funding and dwindling reserves, district officials say they must balance the district’s 2022-23 budget or they could face a lower bond rating. 

Under the latest budget proposals, elementary teachers would receive three more hours of planning time per week, and district leaders would “phase out approximately 250 central office staff,” Elizalde said Thursday.

Elizalde said she had hoped to make cuts to central office staff through attrition over a two- to three-year period but now plans to examine redundancies in district programs to make cuts to “noncampus positions.”

There are a total of “2,771 employees in the central office and operational departments that may be affected by programmatic or organizational changes,” spokeswoman Cristina Nguyen told the Austin American-Statesman on Friday.

Nguyen said that some employees’ jobs will be discontinued by July.

District leaders estimate there are about 250 positions or functions that could be affected, but they are still working through budget scenarios and would help employees apply to other district jobs.

Elizalde also said the district will work with partners such as Workforce Solutions to help central office employees who don’t find new jobs within the district.

“We would work with every single one of them and partner so that we can help them to find something somewhere,” she said.

Ken Zarifis, president of the district’s employee union Education Austin, said he was grateful Elizalde pivoted away from making cuts that would directly affect teachers and students, but he still worried about the central office cuts.

“We would still contend there are many other ways to find money for the short term that will have a minor impact on employment,” he said. “We believe there’s other ways to do it before you go at employees.”