Enrollment drop, TEA takeover and other Houston ISD stories to follow in 2021

Houston ISD
As the district continues to adapt to the challenges from the pandemic, it faces some key moments in 2021. (Matt Dulin/Community Impact Newspaper)

As the district continues to adapt to the challenges from the pandemic, it faces some key moments in 2021. (Matt Dulin/Community Impact Newspaper)

2020 was a big year for Houston ISD, and 2021 could be even more so—COVID-19 notwithstanding. As the district continues to adapt to the challenges from the pandemic, it faces some key moments in 2021. Here are just a few of the stories to keep an eye on next year for the state's largest school district.

Officials fear fiscal hit from enrollment decline

Houston ISD stands to lose as much as $90 million in attendance-based funding from the state if it cannot bring enrollment numbers back to pre-COVID-19 levels, posing a challenge for the next budget planning cycle, interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan told trustees Dec. 10.

A provisional policy from the Texas Education Agency to hold off on using attendance in funding calculations was set to expire Dec. 31. Lathan said the district could absorb budget losses this year without making any deep cuts.

“We’re using our savings account, just like you would do at home, that’s what’s getting us through this school year,” Lathan said, referring to the district’s fund balance. At the end of fiscal year 2019-20, the district had an unrestricted general fund balance of $655 million. “As we prepare for 2021-22, we have to prepare for those cuts.”

After revising the FY 2020-21 budget twice already, Lathan said at another amendment was expected in February to deal with additional COVID-19 expenses.

“All of us thought this would be over sooner rather than later,” she said.

As of Nov. 2, enrollment was 197,059, about 10,000 fewer than the projected 207,000. A substantial portion of the loss—about 4,000 students—were from pre-kindergarten, Lathan said, as parents opted out of enrollment because of COVID-19.

As for the other losses, officials do not yet have a tally of how many may have transferred out of district.

District to offer free rapid COVID-19 testing

As part of a statewide program, Houston ISD will begin offering free COVID-19 rapid testing to students and staff in January.

The BinaxNow swab test kits can be self-administered under supervision and results are available within 15 minutes, according to the Texas Department of Emergency Management, which is overseeing the K-12 COVID-19 Testing Project.

HISD will receive over 50,000 test kits monthly, according to TDEM data, allowing it to test all staff and a percentage of students.

Tests are optional and may be given even when symptoms are not present. Students under age 18 have to obtain parental permission to be tested.

Texas Supreme Court ruling is pending

It is not clear when the Texas Supreme Court could issue a ruling that will determine whether the Texas Education Agency can move forward with replacing the Houston ISD board of trustees—an action first blocked by a Travis County judge in January 2020.

In April, a state appeals court ordered that injunction to remain in place until the appeal could be heard. On Dec. 30, the appeals court affirmed that the injunction was sound and that the TEA improperly sought to impose a takeover.

However, oral arguments before the Supreme Court were also held in October on the matter, and the TEA also said it intends to appeal the Dec. 30 decision to the Supreme Court.

The TEA is seeking to appoint a board of managers, which would replace the trustees in providing oversight to the administration.

District of Innovation process underway

Houston ISD continues to work on developing its formal District of Innovation plan. A committee of 15 people, including one for each of the nine trustee districts and five superintendent appointees, was formed in October to draft the plan.

The district wants to use the status to set an earlier school start date, to offer flexibility around the minimum attendance rules for class credit, and to allow hiring Career and Technical Education teachers under different certification requirements.

The innovation plan will go before the District Advisory Committee for review, and if approved, will be open for public comment for 30 days prior to a board of trustees vote. If adopted, it would remain in effect for five years.