School districts across Bexar County are bracing for the end of federal pandemic relief funds in the coming year that have kept them afloat for nearly three years.
Without a substantial increase in funding from the state, school leaders warn that districts will face painful cuts that could affect academic achievement and school safety and security. Many school systems are already closing vacant roles for good and restructuring in order to save costs, and at least two districts have voted to close campuses in recent months.
The warning comes on the heels of the state House of Representatives passing House Bill 100, which would spend $4.5 billion in schools, a substantial investment but one that local leaders say will do little given the rate of inflation and other factors that have impacted school funding.
The issues in Bexar County are not limited to a handful of districts. Julia Grizzard, executive director of the Bexar County Education Coalition, said the budget crunches are impacting all of its member school districts. The group works to advocate for policy changes that address the specific needs of Bexar County districts, according to its website.
“The Bexar County Education Coalition is a microcosm of the state,” she said. “We represent almost every different kind of district that you can find in the state of Texas — property-wealthy, more urban, suburban, rural — so if something is impacting the members at BCEC, then it is more than likely impacting every single district in the state.”
Eduardo Hernández, Edgewood Independent School District’s superintendent, said that difficult financial decisions regularly faced by districts are compounded by the high needs of students in the area, the premium placed on school security and the mandate by the state to deliver on academic outcomes.
“For our district sustaining a [staff] raise … is going to be really difficult because inflation is still going to continue,” he said. “The expectation that we offer social emotional support continues, meals … all of that has to continue on the same amount of funds.”
The bill passed last week would increase the amount of funding each school would receive per student, known as the basic allotment, from the current $6,160 to $6,250 in 2024 and to $6,300 in 2025.
Under the proposed legislation, 50% of the state funding would have to be used for teacher salaries, up from the current 30%.
According to an analysis by the Texas American Federation of Teachers, the change would put about an extra $80 in teacher’s pockets each month, far short of the rate of inflation in the last decade. According to the analysis, if the basic allotment had been annually adjusted for inflation using the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index, today it would be more than $7,000 per student.
Hernández said he has little hope that more substantial funding will be coming during this session, which is set to conclude this month. But districts are looking to keep teachers in the classroom whether funding increases or not.
In an effort to ensure teachers and students in classrooms are the last to feel the impact of any potential budget cuts, Hernández said that other positions could be scaled back, such as instructional coaches and teacher support — key roles in the classroom as a younger generation of teachers takes over.
“What’s not being talked about is that a lot of people are retiring … so we’re losing all of those years of knowledge and now we’re bringing in novice people,” he said.
Without an increase in funding, Hernández said it will be difficult to recruit and retain other key positions like coaches to work with students with dyslexia, bilingual teachers and bilingual special education teachers.
“We not only deserve it, it is the moral thing to do to make sure that they’re taken care of,” he said of those students.
The superintendent noted that inflation is affecting many costs for the district, from gasoline for school buses to classroom supplies. Other critical services such as cafeteria meals, mental health support and safety and security measures also are being impacted.
Those prices have inched up in East Central ISD, too, eating up more and more of the budget since 2019, according to Superintendent Roland Toscano.
Fuel for district transportation, for example, has gone up 31% since 2019, Toscano said, with insurance policies increasing 44% over the same period.
For districts whose boundaries encompass a larger geographic area, fuel costs have increased even more. Comal ISD’s fuel costs increased 140% since 2019, according to the district.
Paying for security upgrades
Toscano echoed Hernández’s warning that without more funding, staff cuts loom, with preserving classroom jobs being the priority.
Meanwhile, new standards set by the Texas Education Agency require more security upgrades to campuses. The TEA has offered grants for the enhancements, but district leaders fear the money won’t go far enough.
“Safety and security is a huge expense,” Toscano said. “… It’s $1.7 million of our budget every year, but that’s non negotiable right now. But if it’s not funded, how do we continue?”
Toscano noted that chronic absenteeism has also become an issue post-pandemic, further impacting the finances of the district. Despite efforts to improve attendance, Toscano said the district is still under 93% average daily attendance, down from 95% to 96% pre-pandemic.
State funding is based on average daily attendance. House Bill 100 would continue that practice, but move the funding formula from daily attendance to enrollment for additional funding schools get, including the number of bilingual students, low-income students and students in special education.
In anticipation of the fiscal cliff happening next year, San Antonio ISD officials already have started downsizing their central office departments, making millions of dollars in cuts in order to ensure a “soft landing” when the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER, ends in September 2024. The cuts also were made to prioritize a raise for teachers. But years of inadequate funding are taking their toll, according to SAISD Trustee Patti Radle.
“Some campuses … are piecemealing it together,” she said. “Teachers are trying to help each other out: ‘OK, we don’t have a teacher for this classroom, we’re going to get a sub, but we’ve been having a sub too long. Can you take five of those kids? I’ll take five of those kids.’”
Radle said the district is in a position where tradeoffs have to be made to afford paying teachers what they deserve.
“The state is not allowing us to continue the good programs that we’ve developed, to see how we can help our children make great progress,” she said. “We can’t sustain some of the things we’ve put in place and at the same time pay teachers what we think they ought to be paid.”