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 are strapped for funding for a number of reasons, including double-digit inflation since 2019, the COVID-19 funding cliff, enrollment decline 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 that ability to do so.”

Cutting opportunities in Thrall ISD

Despite being a very fiscally conservative district, Thrall ISD is still underfunded, and the COVID-19 money will run out soon. Because Thrall ISD is a smaller district, its schools haven’t yet faced deficit budgets, teacher layoffs or curriculum cuts. However, Board President Bryan Holubec said there are a number of unseen constraints on the district.

“It's really hard to quantify and illustrate what we might offer that we won't be able to,” Holubec said. “We're cutting concepts and being forced to miss out on opportunities. A funding problem absolutely exists in rural schools, and it shows up as unrealized opportunities.”

Holubec said it’s been hard to show the district’s financial challenges adequately to constituents, especially as most continue to see their property taxes rise year after year. In addition, district officials are concerned that cutting programs could be turned back on the district and called financial mismanagement, when in reality, schools are already operating on thin margins.

For Thrall ISD and districts throughout the state, the financial mismanagement narrative simply isn’t the truth. Districts are making cuts to programs, staff and teachers because they are underfunded by the state.

“We are not worried about losing students to private schools, but we are concerned about the state telling us they don’t have the money to allow our basic allotment to increase at the rate of inflation, or adequately fund critical needs like special education or school safety," Holubec said. "At the same time, the state is pushing a voucher program that would funnel billions of educational tax dollars into a separate education system."

Thrall ISD has been struggling to afford the unfunded and underfunded mandates coming out of the Capitol, such as the House Bill 3, which requires an armed officer at every school. This mandate passed with only $15,000 of funding for each campus, resulting in schools needing to make up the difference to pay for the new armed officer stationed at each campus.

“We couldn't come close to affording the cost of a district police department or even the School Resource Officer program,” Holubec said. “We have our guardian program, and we have good people who accept that responsibility for a stipend that fits within our budget...it's basically volunteering, what they're doing.”

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.