Amid declining enrollment and a looming $215 million deficit, the Houston ISD is eyeing budget cuts that would slash funding to the central administration and cut campus budgets, especially at high schools.
The initial cuts would cover about $60 million of the deficit in the proposed $2.28 billion budget. School closures may also be on the table in the long term — not in the upcoming school year — to make ends meet, according to discussion at a budget workshop this week and district documents. Thursday’s meeting was the first in a series to be held before the budget is adopted in June.
For years, the district has relied on its savings, which currently stand at $660 million, to cover deficits. But that won’t work going forward, officials say.
School districts’ funding is allotted from the state based on enrollment and attendance rates, both of which have been drastically dropping in HISD amid the pandemic. The district started this year with roughly 186,000 students, an 11 percent decrease from its pre-pandemic 209,309, according to Texas Education Agency data.
The district can’t continue with the status quo and needs to move with a sense of urgency, Superintendent Millard House II told the board.
“We’ve heard it before: There was a loss of 13,000 students in one year, the first year since COVID,” House said. “That’s a major piece of why this deficit has continued to grow. We’re here to address it.”
Improving attendance is one way HISD can increase revenue, but that wouldn’t have a major impact on the budget until fiscal year 2025, House said.
The HISD board also has the option to ask voters to approve a 3-cent property tax rate increase, which would generate about $65 million in additional revenue. However, it’s unlikely they would be able to hold an election in time for budget approval, House said. The district has also had pause in asking for a bond, out of fear a possible state takeover would erode support.
One option that has been top of mind for many parents during budget talks is whether there were be school closures, something the superintendent has hinted at in the past. There are no school closures or consolidations planned for the next academic year, but it is a tool that could be used in the future, HISD officials said.
Let’s be clear about two things. One is that nobody is going to like this, for the excellent reason that it sucks. None of the solutions, no matter how sensible and reasoned, will be well-received. Trustees may lose election over it, and Superintendent House may have a hard time holding onto his job, assuming he’ll want to stick it out till the end of his contract. I can’t stress enough how much this is going to suck.
And two, if HISD is now permanently at a lower level of enrollment, then the truth is that we almost certainly need to close and consolidate some campuses. We don’t have to rush into that – by all means, do everything possible to get students back and market to new students – but if the district really now has ten percent fewer students, then we have too much capacity and we need to scale back. Again, this sucks and everyone will hate it. No one wants their school to go away. I sure wouldn’t. Whatever we can do to minimize this reality, we should. But numbers don’t lie. And these numbers are telling us things we don’t want to hear. Let’s say it one more time: This sucks.