For most of the last fiscal year, Montgomery ISD board of trustees members have struggled to fund the district while being mindful of a looming budget shortfall, at times furrowing their brows over items that are not completely necessary, such as approving teacher stipends. But through concerted efforts by school officials, the district has reduced its predicted $2.8 million shortfall for FY 2020-21 to a nearly balanced budget as of mid-August.

Still, past mistakes have come back to haunt. The FY 2020-21 budget includes no pay raises for teachers or staff following a budgeting error in the FY 2019-20 budget that allocated $1 million less the amount meant to be designated for the career and technical education department.

Balancing the budget

MISD faced a $2.8 million budget shortfall for FY 2020-21, officials said in preliminary budget meetings in May. Since then, officials have chipped away at the shortfall to put the district in good financial standing.

At a June 16 board of trustees meeting, MISD Chief Financial Officer Kris Lynn, who took the position in April, outlined a budget shortfall of $1.6 million for FY 2020-21, which was adopted June 30. Since then, the district has identified an additional $1.3 million worth of reductions, whittling the shortfall down to $368,000.

“We are not quite to that balanced budget yet, but we are continuing to work on that,” Lynn said.

The board approved a budget amendment in July that reduced the shortfall by $836,000 and another budget amendment Aug. 18 for $472,000. A third amendment is planned, but district officials did not discuss specific details of where the reductions were made or will be made at the meeting.

Board members reiterated at the Aug. 18 meeting that in addition to balancing their budget, they hope to make MISD have the highest-paid staff in Montgomery County, although a timeline for that goal is unknown.

Budget blunders

The state awards funds to school districts for CTE programs based on the number of students enrolled, Lynn said at a June 2 meeting. The district received $5.6 million in CTE funding from the state in FY 2019-20 and was required to spend 55% of that money—or about $3.3 million—specifically for CTE but only budgeted $2.39 million, he said.

“That 19-20 budget for CTE was a million dollars short of where it should have been,” Lynn told the board June 1. “There are state requirements for a reason.”

It is not immediately clear where the money supposed to go to CTE was spent or what the consequences may be for the district.

“I’ll be honest with you, I’ve never had this situation where we were in a budget that wasn’t up to state spending levels,” said Lynn, who previously spent 19 years as Channelview ISD’s chief financial officer. “I know in my previous district, if we had this situation, I would have gotten written up in the audit.”

The proposed FY 2020-21 budget included a 33% increase in expenditures budgeted for the CTE department, which meets the state requirements, Lynn said. Community Impact Newspaper has not yet obtained details of the approved budget.

"I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that is the reason why the 2020-21 budget is $1.2 million more than what was budgeted in 2019-20, and the fact that there are no pay increases in here," he said.

Lynn said the state may claw some of the money back or the district may see a finding in its upcoming audit that said it failed to budget or spend appropriately. However, Lynn said he does not assume the previous administration under former Superintendent Beau Rees knowingly made the error, and he chalked it up to an honest mistake.

“I don’t want my comments to be viewed as demeaning the previous person, whether it be the superintendent or the CFO,” he said. “I don’t want anybody to think there’s some plot afoot, that somebody’s trying to hide money; that’s not the case. ... I don’t want to believe someone would intentionally do that, and I don’t believe that.”

In a followup interview mid-June, Lynn said he still has not had time to delve into the data and figure out exactly where the funds went.

“We may have been spending that money on CTE teachers, but it may not have been coded properly,” he said.

However, at the June 1 meeting, Lynn told the board: “It appears everything was coded properly; there just wasn’t enough allocated.”

Lynn has not yet responded to an email sent Aug. 19 asking for an update. This story will be updated if that information is received.