While Gov. Greg Abbott is sharing news that Texas will kick off the 89th Legislative Session in January 2025 with an estimated $20 billion budget surplus, school districts across the state are running out of funds and preparing to file deficit budgets for the 2024-2025 school year.

Bob Popinski, Senior Director of Policy at Raise Your Hand Texas said districts are strapped for funding for a number of reasons, including double-digit inflation since 2019, the COVID-19 funding cliff, enrollment declines in some school districts, an increase in unfunded mandates coming out of the Capitol and inaction by the 88th Legislature.

“In a time of inflation, which every family is going through, our teachers in Texas are currently underpaid by about $7,500 compared to the national average,” Popinski said. “Texas will continue to fall behind that, so if you want to be competitive and try to attract and retain the best teachers in the state, school districts are losing the ability to do so.”

$28M budget deficit in Keller ISD

Keller ISD Superintendent Dr. Tracy Johnson recently gave Raise Your Hand Texas insight into the challenges the Dallas-Fort Worth area district is facing.

At the beginning of 2023, Keller ISD officials were able to identify a $17 million budget deficit. By the fall, the district was looking at a $28 million deficit budget.

“During the special sessions, it started to look like our legislators weren't going to do anything,” Dr. Johnson said. “We knew that we had a $28 million budget deficit, and that we had a very short runway to be able to find money. We started working with our staff members, administrators, and cabinet to develop a list of non-negotiables we knew we couldn't touch.”

Early on, Keller ISD officials decided they were going to keep budget cuts as far away from the classroom as possible and were not going to eliminate programs or opportunities for students. District officials looked at a number of possible ways to find extra dollars, including bumping up student-teacher ratios to 24-to-one, scaling teachers’ two conference periods down to one conference period, reducing librarians by 50% in moving to a shared staffing model at the elementary, intermediate, and middle school level.

Added stress on school staff and teachers

Dr. Johnson said the district employed a “necessities versus luxuries” mindset, and while the cuts have been successful in finding funding, teachers and staff are under tremendous pressure and stress.

“Our schools can only handle so much stress at a time, and I would say the stress on our district has been profound,” Dr. Johnson said. “The state is sitting on a $20 billion-dollar stash of money when they could fix this for us and for all public education.”

Dr. Johnson said the hard cuts they have had to make impact teachers in particular, and it’s amplified because they are living in the unknown—not knowing what their workload will look like next year and threatening their job security. Keller ISD is unlikely to hire many teachers for the 2024-25 school year, as the district is already reducing many positions across the board.

“In an already difficult profession, we layer that on top of it: the unknown. And then of course, many teachers are acutely aware that a pay increase is not likely, so we're asking people to do more with less,” Dr. Johnson said. “That impacts our teachers, and ultimately, that impacts our students. I wonder if our legislators are even aware of all the implications.”

Enrollment decline in Keller ISD

In addition to making budget cuts district-wide, Keller ISD is seeing enrollment numbers flatten and decline. Coupled with underfunded mandates and a 17% inflation rate, the district is caught in a storm.

School districts are funded by the basic student allotment, which is set at $6,160 per student, and based on average daily attendance. Each day a student has an unexcused absence, this takes $35 away from the daily allotment the state sends to a local school district.

“It's a very archaic way of funding schools, and it guarantees that more money is going to be left in the state budget as a surplus for the legislature,” Dr. Johnson said. “The school funding system in Texas already sets us up to not get that full amount.”

The struggle for all Dallas-Fort Worth districts

While Keller ISD’s $28 million deficit budget is one of the larger deficits in the area, Dr. Johnson said people shouldn’t be fooled by how large or small the deficit number is: every school district is struggling, and the cuts districts are having to make are deeply wounding staff, teachers and students.

"It makes you angry, because it feels like our students are being used as pawns," Dr. Johnson said.

From Denton ISD’s $17 million deficit budget to Richardson ISD’s $46 million deficit budget, public schools throughout Dallas-Fort Worth are hurting from the lack of appropriate funding and resources from the state legislature. In addition, underfunded mandates continue to come out of Austin, such as new 2023 legislation requiring districts to put security guards at every school, with only $15,000 attached to the new mandate.

“These requirements with no real funding behind it—that is what has gotten us all to this place,” Dr. Johnson said. “Fund our schools appropriately, and help us successfully educate our students appropriately.”

Dr. Johnson said because the state isn’t doing what it’s supposed to, the responsibility to provide for schools is falling on districts—even at the cost of dipping into the district’s fund balance, which is supposed to contain three months worth of operating costs for a district.

Dr. Johnson said some people ask why the district is working to solve the problem locally instead of showing the state that the lack of funding is a problem, and she said continuing to “kick the can down the road” would only further harm students.

“We have a responsibility to our district and our taxpayers, to get some fiscal solvency in the district so there is a Keller ISD for generations to come,” Dr. Johnson said.

How to get involved

The $19 billion Texas public schools received in federal stimulus funds expire in 2024, and the current school finance formulas are not flexible enough to meet the ongoing instructional demands or inflationary cost pressures. Texas lawmakers will have a substantial amount of funding this legislative session – over $27 billion in additional general revenue and over $13.6 billion in Texas’ Rainy Day Fund. Investing in public school students should be a priority every session, because the future of Texas depends on well-funded public schools.

In the 89th Legislative Session, the Texas Legislature has the opportunity to better fund our schools and directly improve student education across the state. Our teachers need more pay, our students need more services, and Texas deserves better educational outcomes.

Sign up here to advocate for Texas public schools during the upcoming legislative session. For more information about Raise Your Hand Texas, visit raiseyourhandtexas.org.

The above story was produced by Senior Multi Platform Journalist Summer El-Shahawy with Community Impact's Storytelling team with information solely provided by the local business as part of its "sponsored content" purchase through our advertising team.