The San Antonio Independent School District board of trustees approved a $500 stipend for all full-time employees Monday, which will cost the district $4.1 million.

At the same time, SAISD is facing a $50 million funding shortfall from the state because of decreased student enrollment and attendance. The district will cover the cost of the retention stipends with the $78.3 million in federal coronavirus relief funds it allocated for this school year.

For months, the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel, the union that represents many SAISD workers, called for the board to reward staff with a retention stipend for their work during the pandemic. Staff identified stipends as a priority in a survey distributed by the Alliance earlier this school year, and Alliance members voted to make it an organizing priority.

Alliance President Alejandra Lopez called the $500 stipend a “meaningful step in the right direction for district leadership.”

“Our first priority is to retain and attract high quality staff through a COVID-19 retention bonus this year and a raise for the 2022-2023 school year,” she said. “We are proud to say that part of this priority has already been met with the announcement of a $500 retention stipend for all full-time staff in the district.”

SAISD employee April Duvall told the board Monday that the stipends are a “step toward acknowledging what we employees are all going through,” although she called for the board to pay more to the staff who are covering empty positions.

“We’re covering many vacancies. Many of us are being asked to do unpaid labor [and] overtime covering empty positions,” she said. “Cafeteria staff, custodians, and teachers are all affected by this. We’re all taking work home. It’s affecting our home lives. It’s affecting our own children.”

While SAISD has about $277 million in federal coronavirus relief funds, the district expects to receive about $50 million less in state revenue because of declining student enrollment and attendance. The federal government requires school districts to spread out their spending of the coronavirus aid through 2024.

Texas primarily funds public schools based on average daily attendance and student enrollment. Since the onset of the pandemic, SAISD has lost about 3,500 students, Deputy Chief Financial Officer Dottie Carreon said.

During the 2019-20 school year, about 48,500 students enrolled in SAISD. That dropped to 45,920 students for the 2020-21 school year and 44,921 for this school year, Carreon said.

Most of the roughly 2,500 students the district lost in 2020-21 were in early elementary school grades. About 1,300 fewer students enrolled in pre-K and kindergarten, while 400 fewer students enrolled in grades 1-5, Carreon said.

Moreover, average daily attendance in SAISD fell to 84.8% this school year, while the district historically had never dropped below 90% attendance, Chief Financial Officer Larry Garza said.

SAISD expected to regain about 1,500 students this school year and built its budget around those figures. The loss of 2,500 students will cost the district about $23.5 million, while the decreased attendance rate will cost about $27 million, Garza said.

Interim Superintendent Robert Jaklich said other San Antonio-area school districts are experiencing similar enrollment and attendance declines, and that he is working with other superintendents to determine how they can recover revenue.

“We can share our ideas not only just across the city but across the state,” he said.

To cover the funding shortfall, Jaklich said SAISD could use the $6 million the district saved last school year instead of putting those dollars into the fund balance, which is like a savings account. The district also has $8.1 million it intended to use to hire more staff, but SAISD has not been able to fill all vacancies, like many school districts.

“If we can find the quality people to get into our schools right now, we’re going to spend that money,” he said. “We’re going to put those people in our schools to support our students and children and principals in the school.”

Brooke Crum covered education for the San Antonio Report.