NEISD's board, pictured here in January, voted unanimously Monday to pass a $564 million general fund budget. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The first of San Antonio’s school districts passed their budgets for the coming school year this week, even as many uncertainties remain about what in-person instruction will look like and how many students will re-enroll.

Districts did receive some clarity from the State on Tuesday, however, when Commissioner of Education Mike Morath told superintendents state funding would be the same for students who participate in distance learning and those in on-campus classes this fall.

Morath’s directive came one day after trustees in North East Independent School District and hours before the Edgewood ISD board passed their budgets for the coming fall year.

With such short notice and many unresolved questions, both boards expressed consternation over incurring significant ongoing expenses like across-the-board salary increases. However, trustees in each district left the door open for staff to receive additional boosts to compensation in the coming months.

NEISD’s board voted unanimously Monday to pass a $564 million general fund budget.

Patsy Esterline, president of the North East American Federation of Teachers, a local teachers’ union, advocated for a 2 percent pay increase for teachers and support personnel. If the board could not raise pay permanently, she asked for a 2 percent retention supplement, or bonus awarded for teachers with a certain number of years in the district.

“This has been a particularly hard year for teachers and support personnel, but they have met the challenge,” Esterline said. “This coming school year will again be challenging and perhaps more of a health risk than before. We have spoken with teachers both in NEISD and in other districts who are either retiring early or resigning due to the stress caused by COVID-19.”

Trustees didn’t approve a pay increase, but left open the possibility that district staff could receive additional pay boosts up to 2 percent in future months should the conditions and budget allow.

On Monday, Superintendent Sean Maika expressed reservations about making any big additional expenditures without knowing how distance learning would be funded this fall. But the following day, Morath outlined how districts could receive full funding for distance learning.

The new guidance “is great news for us because he is saying that we are going to be funded fully for distance learning,” Maika said Tuesday. “But we still don’t know the demographic shift that happened during COVID. Lots of people lost their jobs, couldn’t afford to live certain places. Where are those kids?”

NEISD expects to apply for additional state funds from the teacher incentive allotment, a new program funded through the sweeping school spending legislation signed into law last year, House Bill 3. Through the program, the State awards additional funds for teachers identified as high-performing educators who work on high-need or rural campuses.

NEISD plans to apply for the money in spring 2021 and if approved, could start receiving money by spring or fall 2023. But Maika cast some doubt on how financially viable the program can remain given the coming economic constraints on state funding.

Texas school districts receive funding from both the State and local property taxes, although the split in how much comes from where varies. The majority of NEISD’s revenue comes from local taxes. In 2020-21, NEISD officials project that 74 percent of the school system’s budget will be funded locally.

NEISD’s Executive Director of Finance and Accounting Brian Moy told the NEISD board that House Bill 3 would force the district’s tax rate the district to lower its rate as property values increased. Still, property owners’ tax bills are likely to increase as home valuations increase.

NEISD plans to adopt a tax rate later this summer.

Edgewood ISD

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The Edgewood ISD board approved the district’s $104 million general fund budget with an $8.6 million deficit just hours after TEA issued guidance that distance learning would receive funding. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Edgewood staff members told district trustees Tuesday they would operate under a few basic assumptions when budgeting for the 2020-21 school year: The district had to plan for an assortment of learning environments, and the district would have to prepare multiple plans and be ready to pivot whenever necessary. That’s because lots will depend on how willing parents are to send their children back into classrooms. Beyond that, numerous questions remained.

The board approved the district’s $104 million general fund budget with an $8.6 million deficit just hours after TEA issued guidance that distance learning would receive funding.

The deficit includes expenditures made to transition students to at-home learning, including providing devices such as computers or tablets for every student and teacher and incorporating money devoted to pay increases for teachers.

Edgewood cannot assume every home has the capacity to connect to the internet, Superintendent Eduardo Hernández said.

“We are trying to live within our means, [but] unfortunately right now we are in the middle of a pandemic that requires us to do what is of integrity,” the superintendent said. “I make no apologies. … These are costs that are going to be hard costs now but will pay dividends in terms of children having access to the education we expect to deliver.”

Chief Financial Officer Myrna Martinez emphasized that purchasing devices would be a one-time expense.

She later told the board that the district expects its property tax rate to decrease. However, because of increasing property values, the average property owner will still see a higher tax bill.

Martinez added that further compensation incentives could be considered by the board in future months once more is known about Edgewood’s financial outlook.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.