This article has been updated.

More than $1 billion in federal stimulus funds hangs in the balance for San Antonio area school districts that have been left wondering if they will ever see the much-needed dollars that could help address learning loss and other pandemic-related expenses.

State officials have been mum on the status of the funds, declining to tell schools if or when they might see the federal dollars. In late February, Gov. Greg Abbott submitted a waiver request to the U.S. Education Department, seeking an exemption from certain requirements of the second coronavirus relief act enacted in December. That move could be holding up the release of the funds; the Education Department declined to comment on the matter.

Texas qualifies to receive about $17.9 billion from the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) Act signed in December and the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act adopted in March, according to multiple education policy experts. Bexar County school districts would receive about $1.02 billion.

School leaders and education advocates fear the state will again use federal stimulus funds to plug holes in the state’s budget. Texas used the $1.3 billion from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act enacted in March 2020 to supplant education funding in the state’s budget, essentially swapping state dollars for federal dollars. Meanwhile, school districts say they had to find the money to purchase devices for students and personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer, cleaning products, and much more to safely reopen campuses for in-person learning this past fall. Now they are trying to plan for expanded summer school programs that will address learning loss in innovative ways.

But a bill filed by Texas House Appropriations Committee Chair Greg Bonnen (R-League City) could further delay the federal funds from reaching schools. House Bill 2021 would create the Board on Administration of Federal Funds – comprising the lieutenant governor, speaker, and the chairs and vice chairs of the Senate Finance and House Appropriations committees – to allocate or refuse to accept federal funds when the Legislature is not in session. The Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA) called the bill a ploy to allow state leaders to divert federal stimulus funds away from education. The House Appropriations Committee is set to hear House Bill 2021 on Thursday.

TSTA spokesperson Clay Robison said the state teachers group fears this six-member board would supersede the state Legislature’s authority in deciding how to allocate the almost $18 billion in federal aid. TSTA also fears the high-dollar amount of the aid represents a temptation to some lawmakers.

“This is an opportunity for the Legislature to do the right thing,” Robison said. ‘We hope that they will do the right thing and spend that money on education as the federal government intended and not use it to help balance the state budget.”

Several members of San Antonio’s state legislative delegation want schools to receive all the funds to which they are entitled to under federal law. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) can keep up to 10% of the total funds for administrative costs, learning loss initiatives for underserved students, summer enrichment programs, and after-school programs.

State Rep. Diego Bernal, a Democrat who serves on the House Public Education Committee, said he’s grateful that Texas will not have to make cuts to education funding this biennium, but funding schools at the same levels as before the pandemic does not account for the “tremendously expensive and challenging year and a half” that schools, educators, and students have endured. He said those funds should be used to help fortify strategies to address learning loss in forward-thinking ways.

“We’ve already spent a fair amount of money helping districts cope in real time,” Bernal said, “but there’s making them whole again and then there’s catapulting them forward as they go and try to make sure that every student ends up back where they were, if not better than before.”

To get students back on track or even ahead entails more teachers spending more time with individual students, which requires money, state Sen. José Menéndez said. He thinks the state should release the funds in phases, flowing some dollars to school districts immediately to reimburse them and help them develop summer programs. Menéndez, a Democrat who’s a member of the Senate Committee on Education, also thinks districts should be able to provide legislators and state officials with game plans on how they plan to address the “COVID slide.”

“I would think that many of my constituents would like to make sure that taxpayer dollars are wisely invested,” he said. “They must stay in the public school system. That’s what they’re for, but let’s make sure they’re done in a way that helps every child. I just want to make sure that there are some safeguards in place.”

Menéndez said those safeguards should not include a six-member board responsible for divvying out federal funds, as proposed under House Bill 2021. He wishes Congress had sent the money directly to schools to bypass the state because of the lag time in getting Texas schools the funds they need to help students.

“Now we’re sitting here with the state in between, and obviously it’s upsetting a lot of people because the state does not have such a great history of supplementing instead of supplanting funds for public schools,” he said.

San Antonio Independent School District stands to receive about $300 million from the second and third rounds of stimulus funds, according to estimates from the education advocacy nonprofit Raise Your Hand Texas (RYHT). Schools have until Sept. 30, 2024, to spend the third round of funds, which amount to about $208 million for SAISD. The district of roughly 46,000 students would use that money to fund extra school days to address student learning loss, increase mental health services and staff, and upgrade air filtration systems in older schools, Superintendent Pedro Martinez said.

The state should “tell us we’re going to get the money so that we can appropriately make the investments,” said Martinez, adding that the state could disperse the funds over the next three years if it distrusts school districts to appropriately use the money.

The SAISD school board on Monday approved a resolution requesting that the state release all federal funds available to schools without placing further restrictions on the use of those dollars. Martinez told board members SAISD is trying to get other school districts to adopt the resolution to send a message to state officials.

That message is “it is not OK for these funds to be held back,” Martinez said. “It is not OK for politics to come into play when our districts, especially here in Texas, have been open, and we have been spending additional resources to keep our staff and children safe.”

At a recent Northside ISD school board meeting, Superintendent Brian Woods said many other states have already sent some federal relief funds to schools and that state officials who claim not to know the rules regarding the money are “disingenuous.” NISD would receive about $246 million in federal funds, according to RYHT estimates.

“There does not seem to be a sense of urgency around the distribution of those funds,” he said.

Superintendent Brian Woods.
Northside Independent School District Superintendent Brian Woods Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

During the same meeting, Woods told board members that summer school programs likely would cost four times as much as a normal year because of the high number of students who need remediation, which in turn requires more staff and more school days. NISD also increased compensation for summer school teachers. The district expects to spend about $14 million for summer 2021, up from the usual $3.5 million.

The TEA said in a statement that it will distribute funds to schools based on federal Education Department guidance, not the “unofficial funding allocation projections.”

“It’s incredibly important to note that these projections are based off incomplete information, are not issued by the agency, and will not match actual allocation amounts awarded to school systems,” the statement said.

Otherwise, the TEA had no comment on the status of the federal funds.

Bob Popinski, RYHT policy director, said school districts remain wary because the federal relief funds for schools are not currently included in state budget drafts in the House Appropriations Committee or Senate Finance Committee. Districts do not know how much money, if any, they will get to pay for summer school and other avenues to address learning loss.

State Rep. Steve Allison (R-San Antonio) said these one-time expenses to help students overcome learning loss “should not be treated as revenue that is expected to be there every year.”

“While I understand that there are a number of issues that members of the House Appropriations Committee and Senate Finance Committee are diligently working through, we need to end up at a place where federally approved dollars are flowing to the classroom to help kids,” said Allison, who serves on the House Public Education Committee along with Bernal.

Bernal said getting the funds to school districts isn’t “an unsolvable mystery.”

“This is not a cryptic cypher we can’t decode,” he said. ” Just give the money to the schools. It’s really simple.”

Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum is the San Antonio Report's education reporter.