Spring ISD is overstaffed, underenrolled and facing a revenue shortage this school year due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, according to a midyear budget outlook presentation given by Chief Financial Officer Ann Westbrooks on Dec. 3.

According to the presentation, in the budget-planning process for the 2020-21 school year district officials projected a relatively flat enrollment of 35,342 students. However, as of Nov. 20 the district reported a total student enrollment of 33,712—a difference of about 1,630 students. According to Westbrooks, this trend is one school districts are seeing both state- and nationwide.

"As we were looking at projected enrollment, there was no indication that we would have this much of an impact on our enrollment," Westbrooks said. "During the spring semester ... we had over 99% of our students that were actively engaged with the schools. But what we've seen here is that our actual enrollment is ... about 5% less than what was projected, and that's being seen across Texas and across the nation. So lots of districts are dealing with much lower enrollment than what was anticipated and what we're seeing in Spring's area is that the lowest enrollment compared to projections is in kindergarten ... sixth grade ... and ninth grade."

While Westbrooks said the district typically sees students leave the district each school year to attend neighboring school districts or charter schools, this year many school districts in Region 4 are having trouble accounting for many of these lost students.

"We see leavers every year; what we don't have this year is that offsetting incoming group of students, and that's been the narrative across the state: 'Where are the students?'" Westbrooks said. "They're not showing up somewhere else, so that's a bit perplexing."

While district officials said an increase in home schooling could be a contributing factor to the deficit, they were also concerned with truancy. Superintendent Rodney Watson said while SISD typically only does one truancy walk per year to track down disengaged students, the district has already held two such events this year.

As a result of this enrollment shortfall, Westbrooks said SISD is overstaffed by about 71 positions in a variety of departments, ranging from teaching staff to clerical workers districtwide. Looking to the 2021-22 school year, Westbrooks said the district will need to make adjustments so the size of its staff is proportional to its student enrollment. She added the district would be taking into consideration resignations and retirements when making these decisions.

In the interim, Wesbrooks said the district is scrutinizing all vacant positions, delaying hiring where appropriate and evaluating contracted services.

"Students come first; that has not changed because we're in a pandemic," Westbrooks said. "So any decisions that are made regarding whether or not we can hold on hiring for a position will absolutely go against the first level of whether or not it is what's in the best interest of our students. But we are definitely having those conversations and we're closing vacancies in areas where we have overages and we're holding off on hiring in areas where we can."

Budgetary implications

In addition to affecting student enrollment and staffing, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is also affecting SISD's expenditures and sources of revenue.

According to Westbrooks, as of Dec. 3 SISD had spent $9.4 million on technology devices, including Chromebooks and internet hot spots, and another $1.2 million in personal protective equipment, plexiglass, and cleaning and sanitation services. While district officials expect to receive a $7.4 million reimbursement for the technology expenditures through various programs, Westbrooks said the COVID-19 protocol-related expenses are recurring and will continue to increase throughout the remainder of the 2020-21 school year.

Additionally, as student enrollment has a direct correlation to average daily attendance—a component used to calculate how much financial aid a school district will receive from the state—Westbrooks said the district is also facing a revenue shortfall of roughly $12.2 million.

While the Texas Education Agency has put in place a hold-harmless provision for average daily attendance during the first 18 weeks of the school year, district officials are pushing for the state to keep the provision in place for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year. If the hold-harmless provision is in place for the entire school year, SISD would face a revenue shortfall of $7.7 million as opposed to $12.2 million.

"We're asking that the board continue to advocate alongside administration for a hold-harmless provision to be in place for the entire school year, which will allow the district the time to adjust our staffing to our current student enrollment when we get into the 2021-22 budget process," Westbrooks said.

To mitigate this impending loss of revenue, Westbrooks said the district will be maximizing any reimbursement opportunities that are available through the Federal Emergency Management Agency and through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act while being fiscally conservative.

"The long-term impact of COVID-19 is going to be felt on our operations and our financial performance for quite some time," Westbrooks said. "A lot of what is happening with COVID-19 is beyond the district's control, and there are lots of areas of uncertainty and things that make predictions and projections even more challenging now than they have been in the past, and a lot of things as far as the impact goes will be hinged upon some decisions that are made at the state level as a part of the legislative session and some other decisions that are made even at the Texas Education Agency."