Amid concerns about the spread of COVID-19, PISD is more than 2,000 students below projected enrollment for the current year. The Texas Education Agency uses average daily attendance to determine the amount of state funding each district receives. PISD Superintendent Sara Bonser said those more than 2,000 students bring in about $10 million in funding that may not be available for the current semester.
“[That] attendance funding represents about 4% of our annual budget,” Bonser said during a Jan. 12 PISD board of trustees meeting. “If you're thinking of that in personnel units, it's about 182 teachers.”
TEA implemented a hold-harmless guarantee for the first semester of the 2020-21 school year that ensured districts would receive their anticipated funding, regardless of changes to attendance or enrollment. But TEA had not applied the guarantee to the spring semester as of Feb. 2.
In a statement sent to Community Impact Newspaper, a TEA representative said, “No final decision has been made regarding a possible extension to the hold harmless framework.”
Bonser said the district just has to wait and see what decision will be made.
“We are open—all the buses are running, all the teachers are working, [and] all the lights are on,” Bonser said during the Jan. 12 meeting. “We're paying all the bills and all the salaries in this very unusual year, and we need to be held whole for that. We should not be penalized for that.”
Education leaders throughout the state have urged TEA to extend the hold-harmless guarantee for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year because the loss of that expected revenue could lead to layoffs, hiring freezes or program cuts.
Bonser said PISD teachers are under contract and noted the district is not overstaffed by any means.
“There's not one person in this district that is not giving 200% every day,” Bonser said during the Jan. 12 meeting. “We don't even have enough [substitute teachers] to cover the quarantines [that happen]. We need every single person and then some to get through the end of this year.”
At the state level, 82 members of the Texas Legislature—including Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano—signed a Dec. 18 letter to TEA Commissioner of Education Mike Morath pushing for the extension.
“Our urgent concern is that, if the hold harmless is not extended for the second semester, the process of making difficult and harmful decisions to reduce staff, in addition to cutting programs for students, may be forced on school districts immediately,” the letter reads. “We must not let this happen.”
Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano, sent his own letter to Morath in November.
“Because of the drastic impact that COVID-19-related circumstances have had on all Texas schools and families this year on important factors such as enrollment, a decrease in student learning, and more, Plano ISD will likely face operational and educational cuts next semester.” Shaheen wrote. “I respectfully request an extension of hold harmless funding until the end of the current school year. This will ensure that the school district has the resources it needs to prevent further damage being done to students and families already negatively impacted by COVID-19.”
When TEA announced Oct. 1 that hold harmless funding would be extended to the end of the first semester, its news release stated the extension would provide “time for the enrollment picture to become more stable.”
“Given the uncertain nature of this public health crisis, we are giving as much support and flexibility as possible to school districts to ensure that we are balancing the need for student learning with our desire to help all our state’s students, teachers, staff, and families remain healthy and safe,” Morath said in an Oct. 1 statement.
On Jan. 8, TEA announced state enrollment was down less than 3% year-over-year based on data collected in October 2020. However, 54% of that reduction statewide came from early education, pre-K and kindergarten. Bonser said more than 40% of the 2,000-plus students PISD expected to enroll this year would have come from pre-K and kindergarten classes.
Even if hold harmless funding is not extended, Bonser said PISD has no plans to lay off any teachers. The district would dip into its reserves should it need to cover the possible $10 million budget deficit, she said.
“Plano ISD would classify this situation as a one-time emergency addressed through use of our fund balance,” Bonser said via email. “Any staffing adjustments would occur through normal attrition as it does each year. Staffing for next school year will be based on demographic projections as we believe our enrollment will stabilize again after COVID[-19].”