The Alamo Heights ISD board of trustees meets in the Alamo Heights High School auditorium to comply with social distancing measures on Thursday evening. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

As school districts prepare for the 2020-21 financial year and beyond, San Antonio public school leaders continue to emphasize the need for conservative budgeting.

“We are in a situation right now … where we are facing some dire straits,” said Dana Bashara, Alamo Heights Independent School District superintendent. “It is very comparable to the situation that we faced back in 2011 when the state was at a point of deficit and there were no additional revenue streams that had been identified.”

At a school board meeting Thursday night, Bashara pointed to a recent statement by Comptroller Glenn Hegar wherein he forecast a $4.6 billion deficit. Last October, Hegar estimated the State would have a nearly $3 billion surplus to work with going into the 2021 legislative session.

Bashara said this next year would likely feature similarly tough conversations about where cuts could be made.

With this gloomy financial outlook on the horizon, Alamo Heights board members voted to approve what district staff called a conservative budget with a deficit of roughly $1.1 million.

The budget did not include any compensation increases but did allocate $430,000 for a few additional hires including seven custodians, a high school assistant principal, a language teacher, and seven full-time substitute teachers.

The custodian and substitute teacher positions were added in part to mitigate concerns brought about by the coronavirus, said Mike Hagar, the district’s chief financial officer.

A $32.7 million recapture payment AHISD must send back to the State comprises AHISD’s largest budget item. It accounts for roughly 40 percent of AHISD’s general fund, Hagar said.

Earlier this week, Northside ISD trustees also approved a lean budget that carried an $11.5 million deficit.

Northside CFO Rene Barajas told trustees earlier this month that he had estimated student enrollment and attendance at very low numbers in comparison to prior years to account for uncertainty over how many students would engage with the district during remote learning.

The State awards funding to districts based on average daily attendance. Last academic year the district saw an average headcount of close to 101,000, Barajas said. For the 2020-21 school year, Barajas used an estimate closer to 98,000 to create a margin for error.

Trustee Karen Freeman told the board she thought this was a wise approach given the enrollment trends for other districts that had already begun instruction at the time of Northside’s budget workshops. She emphasized the need to get kids enrolled and engaged with their teachers but acknowledged that enrollment has decreased in districts she had spoken with around the State.

Texas Education Agency officials gave districts a reprieve from enrollment funding for the first 12 weeks of the school year, telling school leaders the State would not penalize them for low enrollment during that period of time and award funding based on historic trends. After the 12-week period ends, however, districts have no such assurance.

Northside Superintendent Brian Woods has previously expressed fear over this funding matter. Funding cuts from the statehouse could make this matter worse, he said.

“This budget is being built not just with a look at the ’20-’21 school year, but a look at what happens after ’20-’21,” Woods said. “We anticipate significant state cuts in [the 2021] legislative session, so we’re trying to set ourselves up in the long haul to be successful from the budget standpoint.”

For Northside employees, that means no pay increases going into the year. However, the district left open the possibility for a mid-year increase depending on future financial considerations.

In June, the boards of North East and Edgewood ISDs took similar approaches, floating the idea of future pay increases for staff should the conditions allow.

“I think we’ve got to do as we did in 2010 ahead of the massive budget cuts in 2011. We’ve got to insulate ourselves from those cuts,” Woods said.

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.