Fort Worth-area school districts face budget cuts as COVID relief funds expire
Principal Katy Myers listened to the sounds of learning as she walked the hallways of Rufino Mendoza Elementary.
In one classroom, students rolled dice and used small dry erase boards to practice subtraction. Down the hall, students performed jumping jacks to the beat of The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” in the gym. Downstairs, students wrote a song based on a poem they just read.
Welcome to Saturday school, a learning loss recovery program that Fort Worth ISD funded using $407.4 million in federal pandemic relief funds. Myers recently pulled academic progress data for the 63 students who attend Saturday classes, and children who attended most sessions are on track to meet their end-of-year growth goals, Myers said.
“I know what we’re doing is working,” the principal said.
The future of COVID relief-funded programs like this one in school districts across Fort Worth is up in the air. The one-time money is set to expire Sept. 30, leaving districts to determine how to balance their budgets without millions of dollars in additional federal funding.
School districts face compounding issues after a decade of increased funding across the nation, said Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab, Georgetown University’s school finance group.
Enrollment is down, including in Fort Worth ISD. Fewer students means fewer dollars. The cost of running schools is up because of inflation and a tighter labor force.
School districts across the nation are teetering on the edge of a fiscal cliff, Roza said.
“It’s a lot of financial pressure, and they’ll have to make some very tough decisions — likely the kinds of decisions that parents will notice,” Roza told the Fort Worth Report.
The federal government infused almost $190 billion into education through three iterations of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER, funding. The third round of funding was the largest at $122 billion.
The magnitude of the loss is almost indescribable and adjusting won’t be easy, Roza said. Large urban districts with a high number of students in poverty will feel the biggest impact when the funds are gone.
“You can’t tweak around in the central office, and everybody thinks things are the same. Some districts are going to close schools. They’re going to eliminate programs. They might use attrition to shrink their workforce,” Roza said. “That’s the nature of the situation.”
Everything on the table in Fort Worth ISD
Carmen Arrieta-Candelaria, Fort Worth ISD’s chief financial officer, has been gearing up for the 2024-25 budget for the past six months. She is confident that her district can avert an ESSER-created fiscal cliff as it balances declining enrollment and no additional funding from the state.
Administrators focused the federal funds on short-term expenses, such as Saturday school and high-impact tutoring to address pandemic-induced learning loss. The dollars also funded one-time bonuses and 379 positions.
Everything is on the table for potential cuts, Arrieta-Candelaria said. She emphasized ESSER-related cuts should not be noticeable to most parents.
“Parents should expect the same level of service that they’ve been receiving at the core instructional level,” Arrieta-Candelaria said.
The district is looking at the effectiveness of its COVID relief programs and whether they helped students.
“We’re going to look for funding for those programs,” Arrieta-Candelaria said.
Still, a gap is expected in the next budget. Arrieta-Candelaria estimated that Fort Worth ISD will likely face a deficit of $44 million for the 2024-25 school year.
Cuts are likely beyond ESSER-funded programs, she said.
“Our goal is to get us to a balanced budget,” Arrieta-Candelaria said. “We’re looking at all facets of our operation to see where we can streamline expenses, where it makes sense to cut, and where it may make sense to add to benefit students and student outcomes. It’s not just one answer.”
A different kind of cliff for Crowley ISD
Crowley ISD faces a challenging situation as the pandemic relief funds expire, Superintendent Michael McFarland said.
“Our needs are decreasing. We know that resources will be decreased. It causes us to have to really begin to scrutinize and prioritize how we’re using all of our funds, not just ESSER funds,” McFarland told the Report.
The superintendent sees his district facing a different kind of cliff.
“For us, the cliff is this drop off in services. It’s this cliff of not being able to provide kids the kinds of things that they need,” he said.
Crowley ISD hired more than 70 positions with ESSER. Each campus received two staffers dedicated to academic recovery and one counselor who focuses on students’ social and emotional learning needs, McFarland said.
Now, Crowley ISD administrators are considering how to best use its funding for next school year. The district plans to apply for grants to keep up with student needs.
Cuts are all but likely, McFarland said.
“It’s really going to cause us to change our entire personnel allocation,” the superintendent said.
The 2024-25 budget is in its beginning stages. A deficit is likely, McFarland said.
‘It helped my students a lot’
Kindergarten teacher Lillibette Quinones held her coffee cup and smiled as she watched students pour milk from a carton over their breakfast cereal before moseying in single-file lines to their classes.
She loves how her students light up as they play games that reinforce her reading and math lessons.
“They just need help to learn the foundation, and then they’re going to be better during the year and for the next year,” Quinones said. “I did it last year, and it helped my students a lot.”
Nothing beats Saturdays for Quinones. Teaching is a joy and her students enjoy going to school — even on the weekend.
Once the budget is decided, however, Saturdays may become just another day off.
Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at email@example.com or via @_jacob_sanchez. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.