The financial forecast for Texas schools is poor. Denton ISD is still planning for the best
In its first budget workshop of the year, Denton ISD leaders said they are planning for better days in terms of school funding. But if the state lawmakers opt out of a special session to pass a bill to meet inflation and the costs associated with growth?
Denton ISD will have to make cuts.
Superintendent Jamie Wilson told the school board Tuesday that the administration is going into budget planning with a sense of informed optimism. A key point of light: The district will head into the 2024-25 school year with a plan to increase staff pay.
“We’re going to continue to have compensation plan discussions as if there was an opportunity to provide increases to our staff in the event that funding breaks loose at the state level anytime between now and October, November, December, so that we’ve already got the work done,” Wilson said.
“When we did that compensation plan for this year, every model we had going through the legislative session in the spring had some level of funding for public schools in it. We haven’t seen that funding.”
So far, uncertainty rules the day for Denton ISD and many of its neighbors.
“We’re going to identify some things in ’24 that we’ll have to do for the 2024-25 school year, and we’re probably going to start a list of things that we’ll have to consider for ’25 in the event there’s not any additional school funding, either in a special session in ’24 or when the [89th legislative] session starts in ’25.” Wilson said.
School districts across the state expressed their concerns after the fourth special session of the 88th Legislature was spent in a political wrestling match over school vouchers, which would have given Texas families thousands of public dollars each year to enroll their children in private school or a smaller amount to cover the costs of homeschooling. Lawmakers couldn’t come to an agreement on vouchers, nor did the special sessions produce a bill that fully funded public education in Texas.
Texas schools also have been puzzling through a new law that puts armed security officers on every campus, a measure taken in response to the mass shooting in Uvalde that left 19 elementary school students and two teachers dead. For larger school districts that manage a constellation of campuses — Denton ISD includes about 40 schools and centers — the required staffing came with insufficient funding, officials said.
Security mandates, inflation and a session that didn’t bump up state allotments for Texas students meant many a Texas school district is operating on deficit budgets, or considering cuts.
“If we’re going to have to make those kinds of reductions and actually budget the ’25-’26 school year on 2019 funding levels with 18% inflation and those kinds of things every year, we need to go ahead and start now with what that might look like and what that might mean by identifying what some of those reductions might have to be,” Wilson said. “It’s going to be a big, audacious task.”
Wilson said reductions are “doable,” but they won’t feel good.
“If we think attendance boundary decisions were hard, some of these decisions are going to be hard for ’24, and if there’s not any relief and help for ’25, it’s going to be even harder for ’25. There’s no sense in sugarcoating any of that,” he said.
Jennifer Stewart, Denton ISD’s executive director of budget, reminded board members that the 2023-24 budget came with a $17.85 million deficit so that the district could open Cheek Middle School, fulfill its contractual obligations and give all employees a raise.
Stewart also recalled cuts the district has already made for this school year.
The district reduced campus and department budgets by 10%, which saved nearly $3 million. Leaders evaluated the budgets approved in the 2023 bond, saving $3.6 million. Finally, the district shuttered the Denton K-8 Virtual Academy and reclassified the academy’s positions to Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund grants, which saved the district $1.1 million. Teachers who were hired to teach through the virtual academy were reassigned to campuses in the district, too.
Since last January, when schools dispatched officials to meet with lawmakers and later asked voters to lobby their representatives to prioritize schools, Texas districts have sounded the alarm about the need to keep up with costs. They’ve also reminded lawmakers and voters alike that recruiting and retaining teachers is essential for students and local economies.
The funding crunch for Texas schools happened even as residents in Denton paid more in property taxes, which doesn’t automatically come back to Denton ISD campuses. Lawmakers apportion Texas school taxes.
“We’re not going to bring you a budget that has another deficit for another pay increase until we make up what we’ve put in,” Wilson said. “Just know that just because we start talking about a 2% or 3% or any of those pieces, if there aren’t additional resources that come from the state, we won’t be able to offer that. It will not happen.”
School board President Mia Price said Denton schools are rolling with an additional financial punch as they devise budgets. In December, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission notified districts that Medicaid reimbursements for special education students would be reduced by more than $300 million. The announcement followed a 2017 audit and shocked school leaders, who had already provided services to students in their special education programs.
“It’s like someone changing the rules while you’re playing the game,” Price said. “It’s really unfortunate.”
LUCINDA BREEDING-GONZALES can be reached at 940-566-6877 and firstname.lastname@example.org.