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Keller ISD faces a $27 million budget deficit. Now they're pushing lawmakers for funding

The dome of the Texas state Capitol against a blue sky
Keller ISD officials are asking community members to reach out to state legislators about funding for public schools.

While state lawmakers continue to debate school vouchers during the latest special Texas legislative session, a North Texas school district revealed this week it’s on the brink of a potential $27 million budget deficit in the 2024-25 school year.

Now Keller ISD leaders are urging parents and the local community to pressure those lawmakers into filling the budget gap.

During the district's Board of Trustees meeting on Monday, interim Superintendent John Allison said the projected shortfall is due to inflation, insufficient state funding and unfunded mandates — including a recently passed law requiring armed security at every public schools in Texas.

“Keller’s no different than every other school district,” he said. “Roughly 86% of our budget are people, so to be able to offset in one way or another is going to impact staffing and positions and those kinds of things, and we need to have that conversation earlier rather than later.”

Running a deficit

While local property taxes have gone up, Allison said schools have had flat funding since 2019.

Because of increased property taxes and inflation, some residents are moving out of the district or getting priced out of the area. During his presentation, Allison said the reduced student enrollment means less money coming into the district through what’s known as the basic allotment.

The basic allotment is money given for each student in attendance and is currently $6,160 per student.

School districts are also seeing an end to federal COVID-19 funds known as ESSER, which will end in September 2024.

For Keller, the expiration of ESSER means losing $3.2 million.

Surrounding school districts like HEB and Northwest ISDs are waiting to release their projected budgets for 2024-25 but, like Keller, they are waiting on the Legislature.

A huge part of HEB ISD’s budget prediction depends on what the state Legislature decides to do this session, HEB spokesperson Deanne Hullender said in an email. That includes additional funding for special education, which is underfunded throughout the state, Hullender said.

Northwest ISD spokesperson Anthony Tosie said the district differs from Keller because they are a fast-growing district.

“Keller ISD is in a different situation than us, as they are a mature district that is at or near build-out, while we are roughly a third built out and among the fastest-growing districts in the state,” Tosie said in an email. “Because of the different natures of our school districts, our budgets and planning are significantly different.”

Northwest ISD covers more than 200 square miles and serves more than 30,000 students as of the 2023-24 school year. Keller covers less mileage ataround 51 square miles and serves more than 34,000 students.

While Keller ISD is projecting reduced enrollment for 2024-25, a fast-growing district like Northwest ISD will begin its budget timeline in January to determine how projected enrollment in the district will impact funding.

Pushing back on Robin Hood

Keller is also among the districts that have called for changes to the state’s recapture law, also known as “Robin Hood,” in which property-wealthy districts are required to send excess property tax revenue to the state to be distributed to property-poor districts.

For the 2022-23 school year, the state collected an estimated $3.3 billion in recapture money, according to the Texas Education Agency.

Because the money gets put into the state’s general fund, there’s not a way to see if the money given by school districts is going back to public education, said Allison, the interim Keller superintendent.

“If you’re going to tax the citizens and take it for schools, then there ought to be some guarantee and some accountability that it’s actually coming back to schools,” he said.

In September, Keller ISD voted on a resolution to stop paying recapture money for the 2024-25 school year.

Keller is one of a few districts in Texas that have pushed back on the state’s recapture law.

Recapture Texas, an organization formed by the Texas School Coalition, is advocating for reform to increase transparency and control the growth of recapture.

Public school funding during a push for vouchers

At a time when the state of Texas is set to have a $32.7 billion budget surplus by the end of 2023, school districts like Keller are hoping to get more money for public schools.

But with school vouchers back on the table during a fourth special session, opponents of House Bill 1 are concerned that money given to students for private and charter schools will divert funds from public schools.

During Monday night’s school district meeting, Trustee Ruthie Keyes was among the board members who asked the community to reach out to their state legislators to push for funding for the district.

She said there would be no accountability held for the up to $10,500 per student that would go into private schools if vouchers passed.

“If they would make our kids equal to what they are saying that the voucher kids are worth, what a difference that would make,” Keyes said. “What they’re saying is, our kids are not important as those kids.”

The four state legislators who represent the district — state Sen. Kelly Hancock and representatives Stephanie Klick, Nate Schatzline, and Giovanni Capriglione — all support school vouchers. KERA News reached out to all four legislators for comment, but did not receive responses as of Friday morning.

Proponents of HB 1 say it will prioritize students from low-income families and those with disabilities.

Although vouchers and funding for public schools have been tied together, Allison said they are two separate topics.

“They’ve been tied together so it’s been intentional, I think, for the political leverage on the issue," he said.

Keller ISD set up a website for community members to email their local legislators using a format made by Raise Your Hand Texas.

Through the website, district residents can ask legislators to increase the basic allotment, provide ongoing funding for teacher raises, reform recapture, and increase funding for things like safety, technology and special programs.

Keller ISD’s budget for the 2024-25 school year will not be approved until June.

The district will host a Community Budget Education Forum Nov. 29 at 6 p.m. to discuss the budget outlook for the next school year.

“What we're going to have to look at to be able to balance our budget, a huge portion of that's going to depend on what happens in Austin,” Allison said.

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Megan Cardona is a daily news reporter for KERA News. She was born and raised in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and previously worked at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.