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Many more school districts are feeling the pinch

Not just HISD. Not by a long shot.

For eight-straight years, Cypress-Fairbanks and Conroe ISDs earned the Texas Smart Schools Award, bestowed on school districts with prudent financial practices and high academic achievement.

Now, Cypress-Fairbanks faces a $50 million deficit next school year, and Conroe is projected to face its first deficit in nearly a decade in the next two to four years.

They are not alone.

As the Texas Legislature studies potential changes to the state’s school funding mechanisms, the majority of large Houston-area school districts are facing budget shortfalls they say stem from a lack of state aid. Of the 10 largest Houston-area school districts, all but three approved budgets last summer that included deficits of more than $1 million, according to a Chronicle review. At least nine say they may have to dip into reserve funds within the next three to five years if revenues do not increase.

For some, it is more dire. If nothing changes at the state or local level, district officials say Spring Branch ISD in west Houston will be financially insolvent in three years. Cypress-Fairbanks ISD will use up all its reserve funds in four or five years. Pasadena ISD only avoided a $20 million shortfall for the next school year by passing a tax hike referendum, and multiple districts are considering similar measures to keep their schools afloat.

That pain is felt in large and small districts across the state. North East ISD in San Antonio expects to cut $12 million from its budget next year, likely leading to teacher layoffs, according to the San Antonio Express-News. By 2020, budget documents in Ysleta ISD near El Paso show the district likely will draw down its reserve funds by $12 million. Friendswood ISD, which educates roughly 6,000 students in a sliver of southeast Greater Houston, is facing a $1.9 million budget shortfall next year.

“If we’ve been one of the most efficient districts in the state, and we’re facing this crisis, imagine what other districts are dealing with,” Cy-Fair ISD Chief Financial Officer Stuart Snow said.


Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who sits on the Commission of Public Education Funding, said districts should expand their revenue streams to include sources other than local property taxes and the state. He pointed to Dallas ISD, which pulls in about $10 million annually from philanthropy. United Airlines also staffed one of DISD’s schools with 25 full-time employees, a partnership Bettencourt said should inspire districts elsewhere.

“It’s not going to be one-size fits all — there are many, many ways to do it right,” Bettencourt said. “At end of the day, we want the education system to get students the best educations they can get for best deals taxpayers can support. But we need to look for all the ways we can do it right.”

First of all, to Paul Bettencourt: You cannot be serious. Philanthropy? Are you kidding me? Dallas ISD’s 2017-2018 general revenue expenditures were over $1.4 billion. That $10 million represents 0.7% of the total. You gonna suggest everyone search their couch cushions, too? Oh, and I don’t know about you, but I’m old enough to remember when two of the biggest philanthropic entities in Houston were Enron and Continental Airlines. Good thing HISD didn’t make itself dependent on them, you know?

This is entirely the Legislature’s responsibility. We are here because they refuse to adequately fund schools, and because they use the increases in property valuations to fund the rest of the budget, while blaming local officials for their shortfalls and tax hikes. As with everything else in this state, nothing will change until the people we elect change. If you live in one of these districts, don’t take your frustrations out on your school board trustees. Take it out on the State Reps and State Senators who skimp on school finance, and the Governor and Lt. Governor who push them to keep doing it.

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  1. penwyth says:

    Philanthropy revenue stream?!…Does Mr. Bettencourt understand that SBISD is a “public” school system? Not a charity.

  2. Robbie Westmoreland says:

    It’s an interesting notion for public school districts to create and maintain endowment funds. That would certainly warp their strategic focus…

  3. C.L. says:

    Maybe Sen. Bettencourt can get a TX bill passed that prevents State ISD’s from spending tax or State dollars on anything but academic-based needs. McKinney ISD – $80M sports stadium, Frisco ISD – $90M stadium, Katy ISD – $70M stadium, Prosper ISD – $48M stadium, etc.

  4. Bill Daniels says:

    I agree with C.L.’s post. What we are looking at is surprisingly familiar. We don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem, and those semi-pro stadiums are a manifestation of that. Most districts are top heavy with management/coordinators/people who don’t teach, and I get wanting a nice school for your kids to attend, but most schools I see going up look like the Taj Mahal. I don’t want kids going to schools that look like shacks, but is there no happy medium?

  5. Bill Daniels says:

    I do agree with the “alternative revenue stream” concept, in theory. Since the schools actually have these world class facilities, they ought to be leasing some of them out when not being used for school events. I’ve seen some districts that put small advertising on the side of the buses, and there is no reason something similar to “adopt-a-highway” couldn’t be reworked as “adopt-a-school.”

    Taxpayers are charged with picking up roadside litter, but we are happy when groups volunteer to do it for free.

  6. Ross says:

    The stadiums are paid for out of the capital budget, and thus bonds, which are approved by voters. While I think it’s beyond stupid to pay that much for a high school facility, it’s on the voters who approved the plans.

    With the way recapture works, the money used on the stadiums could not be applied to operating costs, but would go to the State, which uses the funds to reduce the State contributions to schools.

  7. Dave says:

    Before you lump orchestra, choir, band debate and Drama in your “cuts”, be it known that Music and the other Fine Arts are curricular academics. They have academic standards same as Math, Science, etc. it has been proven that when students receive every day group music experiences – their reading and cognitive abilities start to increase over kids with no music or individual playing without a group.