Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Tomball ISD

Some superintendents disagree about school opening delays

It takes all kinds.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Superintendents leading 10 Houston-area school districts penned a letter this week opposing Harris County’s recommendations for reopening campuses, arguing that face-to-face instruction should resume earlier than health officials suggest.

In their two-page letter, the superintendents say guidance released last week by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Public Health Executive Director Umair Shah will keep campuses closed too long, denying valuable in-person class time to students. Superintendents are not required to follow the county recommendations, though the guidance serves as a key document in the debate over when to restart in-person classes.

“It is clear that we all have the same goal, which is to return students to in-person instruction as safely as possible, the superintendents wrote to Shah on Monday. “We thank you for the continued efforts of your departments on behalf of Harris County. With that said, we believe that the metrics outlined in the plan you have provided are not attainable to resume in-person instruction in the foreseeable future.”

The superintendents represent Clear Creek, Cy-Fair, Deer Park, Huffman, Humble, Katy, Klein, Pasadena, Spring Branch and Tomball ISDs. Combined, the districts serve about 457,000 students.

In response to the letter, Harris County Public Health officials said in a statement that the organization “has made it abundantly clear that current indicators are not safe to resume in-person activities in Harris County due to COVID-19.”

As the new school year approached and superintendents debated when to resume in-person classes, some education leaders called on county health officials to offer guidance on reopening campuses.

Hidalgo and Shah followed through by producing several public health benchmarks that should be met before in-person classes resume at the lesser of 25 percent capacity or 500 people in a campus. The metrics included cutting the 14-day rolling average of new daily cases to under 400, bringing the test positivity rate under 5 percent and ensuring less than 15 percent of patients in ICU and general hospital beds are positive for COVID-19.

Harris County likely remains at least several weeks away from meeting those metrics. For example, the county recently reported a rolling daily average of about 1,250 new cases and a test positivity rate of 16 percent.

In their letter, the superintendents only mentioned two specific health benchmarks with which they disagreed. The school leaders wrote that the recommendations would “essentially require indefinite closure of schools to in-person instruction while awaiting a widely available COVID-19 medical countermeasure or greater staffing capacity at Harris County Public Health for contact tracing.”

However, the guidance specifies that districts could start to reopen and ramp up to the lesser of 50 percent building capacity of 1,000 people on campus even without a “widely available COVID-19 medical countermeasure.” County officials did not detail what qualifies as a medical countermeasure in their written guidance, and they did not respond to written questions Tuesday.

See here for the background. As a reminder, Judge Hidalgo and Harris County have limited authority here – ultimately, if these districts decide to open, they can. It’s only when outbreaks occur that the county will have more power to step in. Humble ISD has already opened, the others have plans to have at least some students back by September 16. As the story notes, other districts including HISD, Aldine, Alief, and Spring did not sign this letter, but it was not clear if they had been invited to sign it or not.

I get the concern from these districts, and there’s room for honest disagreement. I don’t have any particular quarrel with their approach, though I personally prefer the more cautious path. As Chron reporter Jacob Carpenter notes in these two Twitter threads, the county now meets three out of seven criteria for reopening, and is trending in the right direction for the others. There’s no accepted national standard for what is “safe” to reopen – that’s a whole ‘nother conversation, of course – so one could argue that Harris County is being overly restrictive. Of course, we’ve also seen plenty of schools and universities that brought in students and then immediately suffered outbreaks that forced closures. Bad things are going to happen until this thing is truly under control, and it is not going to be under control any time soon while Donald Trump is President. That’s the reality, and all the choices we have are bad. Which ones are the least bad is still an open question.

The school district squeeze

Everywhere you look there’s bad budget news.

“This is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” said Fort Bend ISD Chief Financial Officer Tracy Hoke, who’s worked in school finance for two decades. “I could turn out every light, and we’d still have a deficit.”

Hoke isn’t exaggerating about the lights. The Fort Bend Independent School District is facing a $20 million deficit for the coming academic year. The district’s annual utility bill is expected to top $18 million, a $1 million increase over this year.

The district’s other expenses also are rising — staffing three new schools will cost $2.3 million, for example — but its revenues are staying essentially flat under Texas’ school funding system. In 2006, state lawmakers slashed property tax rates and capped districts’ revenue at a certain amount per child. That amount varied widely and tended to penalize school systems with booming student enrollment. Fort Bend, for example, got $4,871 per student, while Tomball ISD earned $5,783.

Three things to note here. One is that any school finance system that cannot keep up with the needs of the fastest growing districts is a system that is built for failure, in every sense of the word. My thesaurus isn’t big enough to adequately describe the magnitude of the catastrophe that is brewing.

Two, education and health care are the biggest parts of the budget. As was recently pointed out to me, you could zero out the criminal justice article of the budget – shut down the prisons, set all the inmates free, close the courts – and you still wouldn’t cover even half of the revenue shortfall. (Don’t believe me – see for yourself. Schools are covered in Article 3, health and Human services in Article 2, with the biggest piece (Medicaid) being under the Health and Human Services Commission, and criminal justice is in Article 5, under Department of Criminal Justice.) We basically froze school spending in the 2006 special session where that giant unaffordable property tax cut originated, and the Lege is going to be forced to cut school spending further in 2011. Did I mention this was a giant disaster about to happen? Which leads to point three:

David Thompson is a Houston attorney who represented districts in a school finance lawsuit that was decided by the Texas Supreme Court in 2005. The court ruled for the districts, noting that they no longer had “meaningful discretion” over their property tax rates. The Legislature responded with revisions to the funding system in 2006.

Thompson said the changes provided “temporary relief,” but schools now are struggling under their fourth year of the so-called target revenue system. He wouldn’t say whether school boards are considering suing again.

“I will say that the trends to me are disturbingly looking like they looked prior to 2006,” Thompson said. “We have funding for schools that is arbitrary and not rational and not related to the standards we’re trying to accomplish. We have growing equity gaps in some places.”

You want to make a sure-fire bet on something? Bet on there being another school finance-related lawsuit in the coming decade, quite possibly in the early part of it. And before you say “well, maybe we can do more cuts on the health and human services side”, let me say three words to you: Frew v. Hawkins. It’s lawsuits all the way down. Fixing the revenue side of the equation is the only way out.