Editor's note: a previous version of this article incorrectly stated that new teachers will earn $63,000 under Humble ISD's budget for the 2023-24 school year. The correct figure is $63,700.

Like many Texas school districts, Humble ISD passed its budget for the 2023-24 fiscal year this summer without significant additional funding from the state, but district leaders are hopeful as special legislative sessions continue to be called.

The state entered the 88th Legislature in January with nearly $33 billion in its coffers and a list of funding plans for public schools. However, beyond a few small examples, larger funding bills have yet to materialize, said Bob Popinski, senior director of policy for Raise Your Hand Texas, an education advocacy group.

“It was a session out of balance,” Popinski said. “It was absolutely surprising. ... All the recommendations ended up failing.”

Multiple school districts across the state are either proposing or approving budget shortfalls for the 2023-24 school year. Popinski cited a number of economic factors for budget shortfalls, such as inflation, which has driven up operating costs, as well as state and federal money tied to the pandemic drying up.

HISD trustees approved a roughly $634 million balanced budget containing 3% on-average pay raises for teachers and raises for support staff on June 29.

However, HISD Chief Financial Officer Billy Beattie said this year’s budget was one of the most difficult he’s helped produce since starting with the district in 2009.

“The primary challenge was lack of direction from the state,” Beattie said. “Districts need time to plan.”

Despite the challenges, Beattie said the district will be prepared to adjust this year’s budget if lawmakers approve additional education funding during a third special legislative session expected to be held in October.

Budgetary concerns

With the district’s 2023-24 budget complete, Beattie cited several factors he said could impact future budgets, including continuing inflation.

Due to high rates of inflation in recent years for Texas—totaling about 18.5% from April 2019-April 2023, according to the Texas comptroller’s office—school districts have had trouble keeping up with rising costs of their operations.

“Recent inflation has had a dramatic impact on operations,” Beattie said.

HISD’s projected transportation costs rose from roughly $13.6 million in the 2022-23 school year to about $14.6 million in the upcoming fiscal year, marking a 7.4% increase. Additionally, the district’s plant maintenance and operations budget—which includes maintenance intended to keep facilities in working order—rose nearly 7% from the previous fiscal year to around $40.5 million in FY 2023-24, budget documents show.

Beattie pointed to several initiatives implemented over the last several years he said helped officials avoid a budget deficit, including the district’s position-control procedures.

“Position control organizes the workforce by position rather than by employee, which enables us to compare budgeted versus actual costs and prevent over-hiring,” Beattie said.

Beattie noted the district’s decision to avoid using federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds—which were doled out in response to the COVID-19 pandemic—to pay for staff pay raises in previous years helped with this year’s budget.

“We knew ESSER funds would end and so we did not want to depend upon them to balance the budget in future years,” Beattie said.

Legislative efforts

While state legislators have already called several special sessions, public education funding has not been included in any of the agendas. However, Beattie said the district will be prepared if a future special session results in additional funding.

From a legislative standpoint, both Beattie and Popinski said they believe lawmakers need to address the state’s basic allotment funding formula.

State funding for schools is determined based on a basic allotment of $6,160 per student who meets an attendance threshold, which has not been increased since House Bill 3 passed in 2019, according to the Texas Education Agency. This funding is the main income source for school districts aside from local property taxes, and the state would need to add roughly $1,000 this year to the allotment to match inflation, Popinski said.

Beattie criticized the current attendance-based basic allotment formula, noting he believes a formula based on enrollment would be more equitable for districts throughout the state.

“During COVID, parents were asked to keep students at home if they were experiencing any type of symptoms. Parents have continued this practice post pandemic and districts are receiving significantly less funding as a result,” Beattie said.

According to Popinski, many funding bills failed due to lawmakers’ attempts to tie them to a private school voucher program as part of Gov. Greg Abbott’s goal to make private institutions more affordable.

Senate Bill 9, authored by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, would have paid a one-time bonus of $2,000-$6,000 to teachers, but failed to pass.

House Bill 100—filed by Rep. Ken King, R-Canadian—would have raised the minimum salaries for public school employees, boosted the amount of money schools receive from the state and increased funding for certain programs, such as bilingual and early education classes.

The bipartisan House proposal died during the regular session after senators added a variety of “school choice” measures.

During its regular session, Rep. Charles Cunningham, R-Humble, said the state legislature allocated roughly $93.6 billion in funding for public education for fiscal years 2024 and 2025, an increase of around $30.3 billion from the previous legislative cycle.

However, he said roughly $18 billion of the additional funds are being used to replace local tax collections in the school finance system, with the bulk of the remainder going on to fund projected enrollment growth and school safety measures.

Retaining teachers

On the other side of the education funding issue is an ongoing national teacher shortage—nearly 11.6% of teachers left their jobs at Texas public schools ahead of the 2021-22 school year, according to the TEA. However, budget issues are making it more difficult to increase compensation and retain educators, Popinski said.

HISD Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen highlighted the importance of offering competitive salaries for staff members at a June 29 board meeting.

“Even when the Legislature did not provide significant increases, ... we moved forward with a 3% increase for all staff,” Fagen said.

Under HISD’s 2023-24 budget, starting teachers will earn $63,700.

Additionally, officials said the district’s budget allocates roughly $16.8 million to attract and retain staff through enhancements to compensation and benefits. Still, Beattie said he believes the district is not receiving enough funding from the state to adequately support the needs of its special education students.

HISD’s special education population has risen 16.5% from 3,557 students in the 2018-19 school year to 4,143 in the 2022-23 school year, TEA data shows.

“The special education allotment formulas must be reviewed and updated to address current needs,” Beattie said.

Hope on the horizon

Lawmakers are expected to return to Austin for a third special legislative session in October to decide how to use roughly $4 billion in additional public education funds.

Cunningham said lawmakers would consider several potential uses for the funds, including increased compensation and benefits for teachers, increases to the basic allotment and additional funding for school safety, curriculum and technology, and special education.

The state is also working through special sessions right now, which could include some school funding bills, Popinski said, though nothing is guaranteed.

“School districts are in a pretty tough position going forward,” he said.

Andrew Mahaleris, a spokesperson for Abbott, said in a July 6 emailed statement to Community Impact that more money will be made available to school districts when the state passes the school choice legislation, stating it’s an effort to “empower parents.”

“Governor Abbott has prioritized public education funding and support for our hardworking teachers throughout his time in office,” Mahaleris said in the statement.

Hannah Brol, Emily Lincke & Hannah Norton contributed to this report.