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To save money, Denton ISD freezes hiring and postpones opening of new elementary

Students who registered the first day of school wait for their classroom assignments on the opening day of Pat Hagan Cheek Middle School in Prosper in 2023.
Denton ISD
Students who registered the first day of school wait for their classroom assignments on the opening day of Pat Hagan Cheek Middle School in Prosper in 2023.

Because of budget constraints, Denton ISD officials have frozen 78 staff vacancies ahead of the 2024-25 school year and delayed the opening of Fred Hill Elementary School in Little Elm.

Elected officials looked closely at the updated budget for this school year, which will allow for the opening of Dorothy Martinez Elementary School in Little Elm, but with no additional staff hired to do so.

“We’re able to do that with existing personnel, not with any additional folks,” Denton ISD Superintendent Jamie Wilson said at a district board meeting Tuesday. “You can almost try to put another little box that says, ‘delaying the opening of Fred Hill Elementary.’ We couldn’t afford to open it this year, right? That’s the reality.”

Texas schools have been scrambling to continue operations since the 88th Legislature and special sessions deadlocked over school vouchers but offered no additional funding to schools as they have dealt with inflation, the COVID-19 pandemic, a sweeping and inadequately funded school safety mandate and a continuing statewide teacher shortage.

In response, North Texas school districts have been closing campuses and cutting staff.

Denton ISD isn’t exempt from financial challenges and is also preparing for surging utility costs after the Denton City Council approved a midyear electricity rate increase for Denton Municipal Electric. With experts predicting that 2024 could be hotter than 2023, Texas school districts are facing a 2024-25 school year with as many triple-digit days as last year, or even more.

Jennifer Stewart, the executive director of budget for Denton ISD, mapped out the latest budget numbers for the current school year and expectations for the 2024-25 school year. Currently, the district is operating with a $17.26 million deficit budget. Projected revenue for this school year is $315.2 million, but projected expenses are at $333 million.

The district wasn’t able to plan for $3 million in cuts to school and health-related services funding last year during budget planning. The funding cut was the result of a national audit of school district spending for health services to students covered by Medicaid, and cuts to the federal funding are felt statewide. The district also has to pay $5.27 million to meet contractual obligations and cover the growing need for substitute teachers. The district expects to save $3.5 million through freezing vacancies and paying for some personnel costs through other funding sources, such as grants.

It was hard news for a district with five campuses under construction — three of which are new campuses — and six campuses waiting for renovation construction to start. Past that, seven major projects are in the pipeline, including the construction of the district’s fifth high school.

District leaders said Tuesday that they are working to shield students from the consequences of a statewide school budget crunch, but a lot of possibilities are on the table — including closing campuses with fewer than 400 students.

“It’s a good thing we saved money for a long time, right?” Wilson said. “We would be where other districts are: consolidating or closing campuses when your class size gets to 35 and 36. And you know that some really, really drastic kind of things will be on the list for ’25-’26 in the event we don’t get additional funding in the next legislative session.”

The longer Texas schools go with funding at pre-COVID-19 levels, the deeper cuts will be, Wilson said.

“We’re going start with the draconian cuts and reductions soon,” he said. “Those will happen at one time. If there’s a school in this district with less than 400 kids in it, it probably will close. So that’s some of our Lantana schools. And some of our schools here in town, they probably will close if you don’t get additional funding in the next session.”

Denton ISD Deputy Superintendent Susannah O’Bara said the district is protecting the classrooms from budget cuts, but officials are having to make some painful decisions to get there.

Full-time employees who work in academic intervention — working with students on reading or math recovery, or to support English-language learners, for example — have been reorganized to prioritize Title I campuses, which are schools where 40% or more of students qualify for the free and reduced lunch program.

“I’m going to say that of 12 total [full-time equivalent positions], six of those were administrators, and six of those were an additional layer of support to our highest-need campuses: Rivera, Hodge, Jennings, Evers, Borman, Alexander,” O’Bara said.

Those high-need campuses are all elementary schools.

“We did that to prioritize,” O’Bara said. “A campus such as Rivera, for example, will still have more support than a non-title campus, but it won’t have the same level of support.”

By law, Texas schools must give accelerated instruction to students who don’t meet STAAR testing standards in grades 3-8. That accelerated instruction comes from teachers or tutors, and with instructional time requirements.

It’s a decision process that affects students who need academic support, and students who are eligible for gifted and talented programs, and who are also served by instruction that happens outside of the classroom.

“We had to very carefully examine any outside-the-classroom support [positions] we would typically provide to an opening campus,” O’Bara said. “So reading recovery intervention, EXPO, dyslexia, all of those things, they’re required by law. But what we’re having to do in many cases is look at a six-school cluster, so six elementary schools that will be clustered around Martinez, and figure out how we effectively allocate those [full-time positions] without losing instructional time that you lose when you have an employee that has to travel.

“We’re having to really carefully navigate that to minimize the staffing to open Martinez, knowing full well that it’s going to shift for all six of those campuses out there.”

School board members said they are concerned about the budget constraints and how they might impact students.

“I’ve been hearing from teachers that, as somebody’s leaving, part of their concern is that that person won’t be replaced in the classes, and at the high school level there will be 35 or 40 [students per classroom],” school board member Barbara Burns said. “At this point, we’re saying that that’s not going to happen. So hopefully the teachers will get that message because they are really nervous.”

Wilson said that without additional funding, the district might have to consider laying off teachers who have one to three years of teaching experience for the 2025-26 school year.

Board President Mia Price directed her ire at Texas lawmakers for leaving Denton ISD families in a financial lurch.

“This should never have happened,” she said. “There’s no reason in the world why we should be in this position. Our legislators let us down. They threw the baby out with the bathwater, quite literally.

“We need to redirect our frustration and our anger toward making a change and letting them know that this is not the way the state of Texas runs their public schools.”

LUCINDA BREEDING-GONZALES can be reached at 940-566-6877 and