Potential school closures highlight statewide funding issue
Date Posted: 3/22/2023 | Author: Jack Densmore
Pflugerville ISD, like many school districts in Texas, continues to face challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. These lingering issues have now evolved into a statewide public school funding issue. During the height of the pandemic, the state provided “hold harmless” funding for schools during the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years, meaning they received funding based on their average daily attendance pre-pandemic. But average daily attendance has decreased, and the hold harmless funding has ended, leaving school districts with less funding on hand and fewer students. In an effort to combat this situation and cut costs by around $10 million, Pflugerville ISD has announced a plan to potentially close Dessau Elementary School.
This plan is known as Elementary Plan Nine. Students of Dessau would move to either Wielend, Delco, or Pflugerville elementaries based on zoning, and some students of Delco would move to Copperfield as a result. District officials point to declining enrollment in the southwest area of the district and an increase in enrollment in the northeast as the reason for Elementary Plan Nine, according to KVUE.
As the plan was developed, other schools were also considered for closure, including Parmer Lane, River Oaks, Spring Hill, Brook Hollow, and Pflugerville—all elementary schools.
Pflugerville ISD Superintendent Dr. Douglas Killian said these plans are the result of not enough funding from the state, according to KVUE. However, Killian also said he is searching for alternatives that avoid school closures.
State funding for public schools has not changed much in the past decade (since 2010). There have been slight rises in funding since 2010, but nothing compared to the nearly $2,000 per-student increase since around 2008-2009 to 2010, according to the Texas Tribune. As of right now, the basic allotment is $6,160 per student, according to KVUE.
However, this allotment is based on daily attendance records. Speaking with The Texas Tribune last month, Killian said, “[Enrollment-based] funding would help us right now. I’m hoping for the Legislature to save us, but I really don’t have that belief that they’re going to do what they need to do.”
For this legislative session, the Texas House is currently considering House Bill 3. This bill proposes eliminating the school maintenance and operations portion of property tax bills and using an increased state sales tax to fund these needs instead. It is worth noting there is also a bill aiming to lower property taxes, House Bill 174, which would in turn lower the funding school districts receive from property taxes as well.
More recently, House Bill 100 was filed, which would revise how the state calculates funding. The aim of the bill by Rep. Ken King (R–Canadian) is to base school funding on average enrollment rather than daily attendance, which is what Killian suggested to lawmakers.
“HB 100 does a number of things, and although we don’t agree with all of its provisions, we appreciate the author’s support for improving public school funding,” ATPE Governmental Relations Director Monty Exter said. “Transitioning many aspects of the school finance formulas from attendance to enrollment, which would add stability and predictability to the system, is one of the bill’s better provisions. The vast majority of district spending is based on the number of students enrolled, not on whether an enrolled student happens to come to school on any given Tuesday.”
Like Pflugerville ISD, Harlandale ISD is proposing the closure of four elementary schools and will vote on the proposal on Monday, March 27. This comes after the district faces a $12 million budget deficit, according to Texas Public Radio. The measure to close down the schools is being made to avoid staff layoffs. Schools potentially in danger of closure are Columbia Heights, Vestel (or potentially Carroll Bell), Rayburn, and Morrill. The proposal would also consolidate the Jewel C. Wietzel Center, another public school within the district.
Just last month, another school district announced school closures: La Joya ISD. Leo James Leo Elementary School and Rosendo Benavides Elementary School are set to be closed because of low student enrollment, according to KRGV. However, the closures are planned based on a study that found the district was overstaffed and funding was not being spent optimally.
“School closures, though sometimes unavoidable, are always a painful experience for a community to grapple with,” Exter said. “Whether or not school enrollment and attendance, which both took a substantial hit as a result of COVID, will continue to trend back up is something we cannot yet know. What we do know is Texas, which is near the bottom of the list on per-pupil funding, could do more to support students and schools. The Legislature is currently planning to spend $17 billion on property tax relief. For the average homeowner, that translates to between $35 and $40 a month. If the Legislature spent that same amount on schools, it would mean an extra $3,100 per student, or a 50% increase to the basic allotment.”
Vouchers are another issue that would hurt public school funding. Read ATPE’s latest statement on vouchers as well as a helpful blog about understanding vouchers and their impact in this Teach the Vote blog.
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