RISD enrollment is around 1,700 students below projections for the current year, while PISD enrollment is more than 2,000 students under its projection. The Texas Education Agency uses average daily attendance to determine the amount of state funding each district receives.
“The loss of that funding could be devastating, especially as we work to overcome the learning loss our students have experienced because of the pandemic,” RISD Superintendent Jeannie Stone said via email.
TEA implemented a hold-harmless guarantee for the first semester of the 2020-21 school year, which ensured that 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. 23.
During a Texas Senate Finance Committee meeting Feb. 22, TEA Commissioner of Education Mike Morath said conversations about the hold harmless framework were ongoing.
“We expect a resolution on that really quite soon,” he said.
Education leaders throughout the state have urged TEA to extend the hold-harmless guarantee through the remainder of the 2020-21 school year because the loss of expected revenue could lead to layoffs, hiring freezes or program cuts for some. Districts such as RISD and PISD are instead looking to dip into their reserves.
At the state level, 82 members of the Texas Legislature signed a Dec. 18 letter to 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.
When TEA announced Oct. 1 that hold-harmless funding would be extended through the end of the first semester, it 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 by 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. District personnel in RISD and PISD said more than 40% of students expected to enroll this year would have come from pre-K and kindergarten classes.
RISD Chief Financial Officer David Pate said the district wants to minimize the effect a loss of hold-harmless funding could have on employees.
“We will do everything in our power to avoid cutting teachers and programs, but with 90% of our budget being personnel, you can’t make a significant change in a school district budget without impacting people,” Pate said.
Rather than laying off employees, Pate said, RISD could consider not filling vacancies or moving personnel around based on enrollment at different campuses.
“Right now, with the impact of COVID on our students’ education, our students are in more need now than ever,” Pate said. “So reducing instructional staff is the last possible option we want to explore.”
He said RISD is prepared to use its existing fund balances to cover the deficit. However, he said those reserves are primarily used to make sure districts have enough cash to cover the period from the end of the fiscal year until other funding sources become available.
“We need the fund balance to smooth out that cash flow from property tax revenue and state funding payments,” Pate said.
PISD officials also said the district would dip into its reserves should it need to cover its potential $10 million budget deficit.
Superintendent Sara Bonser said PISD teachers are under contract and noted that there are no plans to lay anyone off. In fact, she said, the district does not even have enough substitute teachers to cover teacher quarantines caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
“There’s not one person in this district that is not giving 200% every day,” Bonser said during the Jan. 12 board meeting. “We need every single person and then some to get through the end of this year.”
Bonser said via email that staffing for the next school year will be based on demographic projections, as the district believes enrollment will stabilize once the pandemic ends.
“We are open. All the buses are running. All the teachers are working. 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.”